As the great fantasy adventures have frequently been inspired by mythology, it is no surprise that a faithful retelling of myths could produce such an enormously entertaining and supremely artistic effort as Argonautika, adapter-director Mary Zimmerman's version of the story of Jason and the Argonauts. This is arguably as enjoyable an epic as an installment of Lord of the Rings or one of the Episodes IV-VI of Star Wars; and, however large or small her production budget may have been, it is exceeded by the creativity of the visual artistry on stage.
For this production, Lookingglass has configured its mainstage space by placing a horizontal stage between two seating areas. The playing area is a wooden frame, with a wall on each side and a ceiling and trap doors above, as well as a catwalk transferring the stage to form a T-configuration. With the one row balcony that encircles the black box serving as an occasional playing area as well, Ms. Zimmerman has performers entering acrobatically from every which way, and props flying in from Zeus-knows-where. You never know for very long exactly where to look, and the director keeps surprising with her visual scheme, pleasantly upsetting any established patterns of viewing we may bring. Additionally, the artistry of the design team's costumes, props, puppets and lighting complement her use of the actors' bodies in unexpected ways that turn the simple rectangle of her playing space into a fantastical world in which gods and men interact.
Jason, son of a deposed King, goes to claim the throne that is rightfully his from his uncle, the evil King Pelias. Pelias sends him on the impossible mission to retrieve a golden fleece from the even more threatening Aeetes, King of Colchis. In that quest, Jason and the crew of his ship Argo must contend with Amazons, dragons, aggressive and foul-smelling flying creatures, seductive water nymphs and sail through a strait of clashing cliffs. Upon their arrival at Colchis, Aeetes gives Jason still another impossible task – to yoke the King's two fire-breathing bulls and plow a field so that he may sow the teeth of dragons into the Earth. Jason prevails through the assistance of the goddesses Athena, Hera and Aphrodite. He's helped as well as his eventual wife, Medea, whom he later betrays and whose revenge is explored more thoroughly in the tragedy of Euripides bearing her name.
Ms. Zimmerman's athletic cast literally soars – sometimes with the use of wires, sometimes with each other's help, as when Mariann Mayberry as Athena gracefully leaps into the arms of a male cast member who carries her off. At other times they climb the wooden "mast" of Daniel Ostling's wooden set, or scramble on the ship's riggings. Sometimes the main horizontal platform is itself the Argo, with crew members rowing the lips of the stage; at other points the catwalk above serves that function, or occasionally a tiny model created by properties designers Rachel Jamieson and Kevin Durnbaugh "sails" between legs of the actors. Ana Kuzmanic's costumes include faithful recreations of the garb as depicted in legendary illustrations but also such fanciful creations as a belt surrounding Medea that contains the arrow shot through her heart by a flying Cupid. Highlights of Michael Montenegro's puppet designs include a head for a giant, two-performer-high representation of the god Poseidon as as well those foul fowl, the flying Harpies. The lighting design of John Culbert, which adds mood and helps to create special effects, is especially effective in an Epilogue which links the characters of the story to the heavenly constellations they inspired. I don't know who to credit for the simple, yet effective monster made from a giant green sheet with attached eyes.
In two hours and thirty minutes of playing time, Ms. Zimmerman's adaptation maintains a mostly classical sounding, yet accessible style of language that is interrupted by contemporary language like "I don't give a f--- about the golden fleece" just often enough to connect us to present-day attitudes. Mostly, though, she presents the myths as they have been told throughout the centuries, as amazing adventures that attempt to explain the world, and Argonautika simply luxuriates in the wonder of those stories and their heroes.
Though Jason is the central figure, he's merely one of a uniformly fine ensemble cast. Ryan Artzberger plays Jason completely without irony or exaggeration, allowing the gods to remain the dominant figures. Marian Mayberry is convincingly tough as the warrior Athena, together with Lisa Tejero as a powerful and maternal Hera. Jesse Perez is touching as the blind seer Idmon and Glenn Fleschler finds subtly contemporary tones that serve the iron-willed strength of Hercules and Aeetes – one hero, one villain. Atley Loughridge as Medea is tragic, yet not pitiful. The remaining cast members, who assume multiple roles, all deserve recognition. They include Victoria Caciopoli, David Catlin, Larry Distasi, Allen Gilmore, Tony Hernandez, Dan Kenney, Jarret Sleeper and Angela Walsh. These versatile performers also get to sing an original song with music by sound designers and composers Andre Pluess and Ben Sussman.
The dragons, the Harpies and even the arrows of Cupid may be frightening, but this production proves the classics needn't be. Though this material is taught in school and was adapted and directed by a Tony-award winning artist respected at every level of the theater world, there's nothing intimidating about Argonautika. It's quite simply the most amazing and enjoyable piece of theater to originate in Chicago I've yet seen.
Argonautika will be performed through December 23, 2006 at Lookingglass Theatre, inside the historic Water Tower Works, 821 N. Michigan at Pearson. Performances are Tuesdays and Thursdays at 6:30 p.m., Wednesdays and Fridays at 7 p.m., Saturdays at 3 and 8 p.m. and Sundays at 3 p.m. For tickets and information, call 312-337-0665 or visit www.lookingglasstheatre.org.