'Argonautika' lights Jason's mythic voyage
by Hedy Weiss
Director Mary Zimmerman hears the siren call of the gods and goddesses of ancient Greece in much the same way outsider artists seem to hear the call of the Old Testament prophets. She seems to have a special pipeline to the spirits of those Mount Olympus deities.
Otherwise, how can you account for her uncanny ability to make them seem so exalted and at the same time so down-to-earth, so super-hero powerful and so laughably petty and prosaic? How can you explain her skill at capturing the hearts and minds of these tempestuous, egotistical, industrious but invariably thin-skinned power brokers who play so recklessly with the fates of mortal men and women?
Of course, Zimmerman realizes these heavenly royals are a great deal like the humans they oversee. This is precisely why the gods can so easily exploit the desires and appetites of their mortal playthings, and continually put their physical and mental strength to the test. She also understands that the gods and goddesses have a flair for impulsively setting big things in motion, while perversely (or just carelessly) being unable to see them through. So they would think nothing of sending a shipload of mortals out to "cross oceans [only] to find an ocean of trouble." In fact, so much the better if havoc ensues; it will test the free will and innate character of these mortals.
And so it is in "Argonautika: The Voyage of Jason and the Argonauts," which opened this weekend at Lookingglass Theatre in a production of great beauty, wild imagination, goofy humor and emotional heat.
Exploring human nature
The show is classic Zimmerman -- a seamless meeting of actors, designers and episodic text. It also feels like the crowning installment in a long series of her works -- "Arabian Nights," "Metamorphoses," "The Trojan Women" -- that have arrived onstage in the wake of the first Gulf War, the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks and the current war in Iraq -- that either inadvertently or directly speak to those events in a metaphoric way. (And metaphor is always her preferred approach. As the goddess Athena scolds in this production: "Don't be so literal. You miss a lot.")
Jason assembles a crew for his ship, the Argo, that includes: Hercules (Glenn Fleshler, who is not only a hoot as the big, dumb, hugely soft-hearted Hercules, but is completely chilling as the evil King Aeetes); the fearless, agile twins, Castor (Larry DiStasi) and Pollux (Tony Hernandez); the fierce Meleager (Dan Kenney); the prophetic Idmon (Jesse J. Perez); the earnest Amycus (David Catlin); two younger oarsmen played beguilingly by Jarrett Sleeper and Victoria Caciopoli, and the older, more experienced sailor (Allen Gilmore).
Goddesses on a mountaintop
But it is a trio of goddesses who truly steer these men's fates: The anti-romantic Athena (Mariann Mayberry, buff, gold-dusted and ferocious in what might well be her finest work to date); the drama queen Hera (Lisa Tejero, sparkling in all her character's volatility and pettiness), and Aphrodite (the eye-catching Angela Walsh), a runway model type, who orders Eros to shoot an arrow through the heart of the virginal sorceress, Medea (Atley Loughridge, tragic in her innocent grace, passion and torment). Transformed into Jason's love slave, her life soon lurches into a fast downward spiral.
The voyage to the Golden Fleece consumes the production's first half; the terrible destiny of Medea -- who sacrifices everything for Jason, but is then dismissed with a "you don't understand" -- is at the scorched heart of the second act.
A show that moves
And Zimmerman has "choreographed" every inch of this voyage so that the whole stage seems to move, whether the action is on land, sea or in some netherworld. Daniel Ostling's giant wood plank, shoebox-shaped set, with oarlocks and bridge deck and soaring mast and perilous rigging that makes you realize sailors are death-defying acrobats -- comes with fairy tale lighting by John Culbert. Michael Montenegro's puppets also dance -- whether flying seabirds, green-eyed monsters, jangling skeletons, hooved Centaurs (half actor, half puppet), devouring Harpies, or a baby so magnificently real you will swear it is made of flesh and blood.