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New Jersey by Bob Rendell

Argonautika: The Magic of Mary Zimmerman

Also see Bob's review of My Fair Lady

Argonautika
Atley Loughridge and Jake Suffian
Mary Zimmerman transforms classic tales into accessible, modern pageants which fluidly and accessibly translate the tales into vivid and intellectually stimulating theatre which speaks across the centuries to contemporary audiences. For the third time in eight years, Zimmerman is working her magic for McCarter Theatre audiences. Argonautika is both a largely faithful and very original adaptation of The Voyage of Jason and the Argonauts after Apollonius of Rhodes and Gaius Valerius Flaccus, as translated by Peter Green and David R. Slavitt.

Before all those names scare anyone off, consider (here in part) the joy of the Invocation chanted by the company to begin the play:

Sing in us muse the story of Jason and the Argonauts
How he was sent away on the first voyage of the world
To bring back the golden Fleece, remnant of the flying ram
That carried away the little children Phrixus and Helle
When their mother was about to murder them.
The golden ram flew over the ocean no one had ever sailed ....
What was it like when the world was so young?
Let us see the stars in the night sky above our heads,
Let us feel the swell of the waves under our feet
Let us hear the snap of the sails in our ears
Let us and those who hear us be generous.
Let us be good.
Let us please.
Let us.
Please.

With this beautiful introduction, Mary Zimmerman had me hooked right from the start, and I venture to say that you likely will be, too.

A brief and partial recap for those who, like myself, are not up on their Greek mythology (thanks to the clarity and modernity of the adaptation, we are not at a disadvantage). Ailing King Pelias of Thessaly is fearful that he will be murdered by his nephew Jason from whose father he has usurped the throne. Pelias fears the reaction if he slays Jason. Instead, he offers Jason the crown, imploring him to first gather a crew and undertake the first sea voyage ever to Colchis to recover the golden fleece in order to gain popular support for his succession. Pelias is convinced that, between the sea, the monsters of the sea and the murderous King of Colchis, Jason cannot possibly survive the voyage.

Jason gathers a crew which includes the great warrior Hercules, son of Zeus and a mortal. Most crucially, aiding him are Hera, the wife of Zeus, and Athena, the warrior goddess of war and wisdom. The arduous voyage passes through many dangers and adventures. Eventually, Hera and Athena, through flattery and threat, inveigle Aphrodite, the goddess of erotic love, to get her son Eros (Cupid) to shoot an arrow into Medea (yes, that Medea), the daughter of the king of Colchis and then an innocent teenager, causing her to fall madly in love with Jason. Suffice it to say, Medea has become a victim of the fates and her sympathetically told tale is a major facet of Argonautika.

Each member of the cast of fifteen, whose improvisations during rehearsals helped Mary Zimmerman in completing the text of Argonautika, makes major contributions. A large number play multiple roles. Lisa Tejero as Hera projects a casual regalness. Sofia Jean Gomez appears to be reigning in her fierceness under Tejero's guiding hand. Tessa Klein is the most modern as a petulant Aphrodite. Atley Loughridge is appealing as the wronged Medea. Jake Suffian neatly combines the classic and modern as modest Jason, who seems unaware of the injustice of his treatment of Medea. Soren Oliver captures the humor of a stalwart Hercules who understands his limitations. In fact, all of the actors depicting the Argonaut crew effectively project distinct personalities.

Writer-director Mary Zimmerman has employed a large, open, brightly lit wooden stage designed by Daniel Ostling, built high and extending out beyond the proscenium. There is an approximately fifteen foot high, large, two-directional bridge or platform on the stage right quadrant, jutting out from the wings at the front of stage, and also running from the front all the way to the back of the stage. This is employed for many scenes, including the galley of the ship Argo. There is also a level below the main stage platform at the rear (and, I think, front, also), and trap doors to enable any number of excellent visual effects. It is most effectively lit by John Culbert. The rich and classic costumes are by Ana Kuzmanic. Like the play itself, they combine the classic with the contemporary, the latter achieved by their airy lightness.

Among the effective visuals are a giant sea monster and its applause-inducing slaying, the attack of the defecating bird-women harpies and their fall into the sea, and the defeat of the dragon who never sleeps. There are puppets (an amazingly effective baby among them), miniature ships, ropes and hoists, and much more. There is song and African rhythm. There is not as much modern prankishness here as there was in Zimmerman's adaptation of The Odyssey, still there is enough to provide many a delighted smile. The F word is used on a couple of occasions, and it requires no prudery to note that, in a show so immensely suitable for families, its use is more off putting than it is enhancing. My favorite moments were the high fives and single syllable expressions of triumph exchanged by Hera and Athena after their manipulation of Aphrodite, which vividly reminded me of one of my daughters.

The principal lesson here is the danger of hubris. And, after Jason abandons Medea, there is a penultimate moment when the company recites what is surely intended to invoke the perceived folly of the American mission in Iraq. However, it is stated without rancor and is certainly worth bearing in mind before embarking on any dangerous enterprise:

O these glorious missions
Of men, they start out so well, so full of hope and noble intent,
Teach the foreigner a lesson, destroy the tyrant, become a man,
Defend the nation, hip hip hoora hoora, seize that shining fleece and
The world itself will change, seize that golden fleece and utopia will descend,
Seize that fleece and there will be an end to evil. Whatever.
They all end up like this in the end

Argonautika continues performances at the McCarter Theatre (Matthews Theatre), 91 University Place, Princeton, NJ 08540 through April 6. Box Office: 609-258-2787; online: www.mccarter.org.

Argonautika written and directed by Mary Zimmerman

Cast
Hera and others………………..Lisa Tejero
Jason………………………….Jake Suffian
Athena………………….Sofia Jean Gomez
Pelias and others…………...Allen Gilmore
Idmon and others…………...Jesse J. Perez
Meleager and others………..Andy Murray
Castor and others………….Chris Kipiniak
Pollux and others…………...K.C. Jackson
Hercules/ Aietes…………….Soren Oliver
Hylas/ Dymas…………...Justin Blanchard
Amycus and others…...Jason Vande Brake
Aphrodite/Andromeda………..Tessa Klein
Medea/ Pelias' Son……..Atley Loughridge
Eros and others……………Anjali Bhimani


Photo: T. Charles Erickson


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- Bob Rendell



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