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Massive 5-ton steel wheel stars in ancient Greek drama

"Prometheus Bound," thought to have first been performed around 450 B.C., gets a modern twist with a highly engineered 23-foot kinetic wheel that serves as the play's centerpiece.

The cast of the upcoming play rehearses on the giant wheel, which becomes like a character unto itself. CalArts Center for New Performance

A 23-foot, 5-ton steel structure recently rolled into Malibu, Calif., looking like a ferris wheel, but offering anything but amusement park fun. At least if you're Ron Cephas Jones.

The actor, who plays the lead role in an upcoming version of the Greek tragedy "Prometheus Bound," will spend most of the play strapped to the giant contraption, a staging that requires harnesses -- and surely some getting used to. The highly engineered kinetic sculpture brings a contemporary edge to the ancient play about the rebel god Prometheus, who gets chained to a remote mountain for eternity as punishment for defying Zeus by gifting fire to mere mortals.

In this avante-garde interpretation at L.A.'s Getty Villa, the giant wheel stands in as that mythological mountain top.

"The wheel embodies a dense layer of imagery and metaphor, referencing medieval clocks, the Buddhist Wheel of Dharma, the zodiac, and a Catherine Wheel, among other symbols," said Travis Preston, artistic director of the CalArts Center for New Performance and director of the upcoming production. "There's an austere beauty to the wheel, but it is undeniably static, reinforcing the idea that the main character is locked in place, as demanded by the text."

The wheel -- which would easily look at home at Burning Man or any Maker Faire -- is the brainchild of the creative team at CalArts, one of Getty's partners in the production, which opens for previews August 29 and runs September 5-28.

Jones will perform much of the play perched on a 9-foot aluminum disc that orbits the center of the giant wheel like the hand of a clock. Another actor stationed at ground level rotates the disc by turning a 36-inch ship wheel found on eBay by set designer Efren Delgadillo. The entire structure rests on a base fitted with casters, and actors can move it by pushing it across the stage, triggering two additional hidden wheels.

Delgadillo spent months designing the set piece, studying wind tunnels, water wheels, clock gears, and drawings by Leonardo da Vinci and together with Preston considered 15 variants of the wheel before they settled on the current iteration.

"In terms of the look, the height, and the footprint, we've never done anything like this before in our eight years of presenting theater," said Laurel Kishi, performing arts manager at the J. Paul Getty Museum. "It's almost like a contemporary art installation."

"Prometheus Bound" is thought to have first been performed around 450 B.C. At various points during the Getty Villa interpretation, 12 female chorus members will climb the wheel, attached to the elevated structure by tailor-made harnesses and trained to maneuver safely on it by Flying By Foy, a Las Vegas-based company that specializes in stage flight.

Constructed at LA ProPoint, a fabricator of theme park rides and complex mechanical props, the set piece is now in place for rehearsals at an outdoor theater at Getty Villa. A 90-foot crane lifted the mammoth structure onto the site in pieces.

See our gallery above for more on how CalArts reinvented the wheel for the upcoming production of "Prometheus Bound."