The Austin Chronicle

The Vortex's Privacy Settings: A Promethean Tale

Ancient myth meets modern surveillance memorably in this devised work directed by Heather Barfield

Reviewed by Shanon Weaver, June 10, 2016, Arts

As I quickly scanned the release form I was asked to sign before taking my seat at the Vortex, I became keenly aware of the point immediately made by Privacy Settings: A Promethean Tale. Like so many iOS updates' "terms and conditions," I cared more about my own instant gratification than paying attention to what I was signing – such is the world in which we live. I trusted that everything was in order, nobody was trying to screw me out of a kidney or anything, and a cursory glance was all I needed before signing away gods know what. The paranoia-inducing expectations set for this memorable show are, for the most part, well executed through clever and rather unconventional methods.

This passion project of Vortex Associate Artistic Director Heather Barfield, devised by the ensemble and directed by Barfield, weaves events of the recent past involving surveillance, security, and other Patriot Act-y nonsense loosely into Aeschylus' Prometheus Bound. Mythological fire-stealing, human-protecting Prometheus and whistle-blower Edward Snowden are combined, played with a quiet passion and strength by Trey Deason, who spends the majority of the play in chains, mounted on a large box enclosed by glass (just one part of Ann Marie Gordon's simple yet menacing set), with only a keyboard and dial-up Internet access to accompany him on his quest for freedom of knowledge. Gordon's set also includes various documents cobbled together as projection screens, onto which video designer Sergio R. Samayoa plasters images of random surveillance footage, drone attacks, and 9/11 nightmares throughout the evening, and onto Deason himself occasionally, with animated images of Matrix-y code and gaping liver wounds used to great effect. (Though it's not my job to prescribe, I'd have loved to see some footage of my audience as we bought our tickets displayed ... but if it happened, I missed it.) The sound system at the Vortex is also well used by Chad Salvata, with its deep bass and anxiety-inducing low tones vibrating the seats, ramping up the feeling of foreboding.

There's not much I feel comfortable discussing about the plot or its resolution, actually, lest I ruin some theatrical surprises. (In fact, I got the sense that the ending may be influenced by the audience in Act II, so my analysis might be moot.) Treading lightly, though, Act I sets up the connection of the mythology and its modern interpretation, while Act II becomes a mobile, interactive experience putting the power of choice (and the choice of power) in the hands of the audience with some great improvisation as the actors poke and prod at the small groups with which they interact. Susan Bennett delivers a playful Pandora, while Blake Robbins is hilarious as a hoverboard-bound George Bush/Hermes. Io is one of the more interesting characters: Here, the mortal after whom Zeus lusts is presented as an artificial intelligence program run amok, victim to the flawed humanity to which she is exposed – shades of the recent Microsoft AI chatbot that was disabled after a short time on Twitter turned it into a genocidal, racist douche kazoo. The cast is rounded out by strong performers, including Karen Jambon, Delante Keys, and Jesus Valles. (While I'd love to list more, there was no program recognizing actors, and my own surveillance skills are meek and limited.)

Enjoyable as the show is, there's a little something off, and I can't quite figure out what it is. The mixing of mythology and modern neuroses feels, to me, a touch on the nose, but this is far from an unforgivable sin. The show also takes for granted its audience's familiarity with Prometheus Bound (as I've admittedly done here, but I have only so many words to use), but spoon-feeds more recent and recognizable events. Still, the show's themes are enough to start discussions on the drive home, and with its quick shifts from serious to interactive to silly – did I mention the random pop song musical numbers? – there's plenty for fans who prefer their theatre more on the experimental side.

Privacy Settings: A Promethean Tale

The Vortex, 2307 Manor Rd., 512/478-5282
Through June 18
Running time: 2 hr.

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