Town Topics — Princeton's Weekly Community Newspaper Since 1946.
Vol. LXII, No. 13
Wednesday, March 26, 2008
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(Photo by T. Charles Erickson)
MOTHER-SON MACHINATIONS: Aphrodite (Tessa Klein, right) calls on her mischievous, airborne son Eros (Ronete Levenson), the god of love, to plot the romance of Jason and Medea in Mary Zimmerman’s “Argonautika,” playing at McCarter’s Matthews Theatre through April 6.

Jason and the Argonauts Sail the Seas of Adventure and Romance in Mary Zimmerman’s Playful, Ingenious Staging of an Epic Tale

Donald Gilpin

The young maiden Medea, dressed in white, sits shyly in the corner of the room, as her father King Aietes defiantly rejects Jason’s plea for the Golden Fleece. She does not see the arrow shot from the bow of Eros, the god of love, traveling slowly towards her, carried in the hand of Aphrodite. The arrow pierces Medea’s heart, the red stain gradually spreads across the front of her dress, and no matter how hard she tries, Medea is unable to dislodge this arrow of love from her breast. She is at the mercy of “love the destroyer,” a helpless pawn of the gods’ intrigues, hopelessly and fatally in love with Jason.

“The task is to find the essence through compression,” declares Mary Zimmerman, the writer and innovative director of Argonautika, playing at McCarter’s Matthews Theatre through April 6. In this poignant, visually stunning moment where Medea suffers the wound of Eros’ arrow, and in so many other ingenious, theatrically captivating moments throughout the evening, Ms. Zimmerman does just that. In dozens of scenes, with episodes taking place on land, sea and in the air, Argonautika, with its talented, athletic ensemble of fourteen playing scores of different roles, captures with flair and focus the essences of the numerous incidents in Jason’s heroic quest.

Adapted freely from the 3,000-year-old Greek myth of Jason and his Quest for the Golden Fleece, Ms. Zimmerman’s tale is rich in adventure and romance, scheming gods and mighty heroes, nobility, treachery and humanity.

What brings this epic tale to life on stage and creates the kind of magic here that has won Ms. Zimmerman a MacArthur Foundation “genius grant,” a Tony Award for her Broadway adaptation of Ovid’s Metamorphoses and abundant acclaim for her previous productions of The Odyssey and The Secret in the Wings at McCarter, is the sheer ingenuity and exuberance of her theatricality.

Ms. Zimmerman’s theater, drawing heavily on traditions of children’s theater and puppet theater and a rehearsal method that puts a premium on spontaneity and improvisation, is characterized by visual surprises, daring theatrics and an air of playful creativity. Contemporary spins and inconsistencies in style and language abound, and add to the fun. Gifted costume designer Ana Kuzmanic and puppetry designer Michael Montenegro have contributed richly to the delightful and dazzling effects. Argonautika premiered at the Lookingglass Theatre Company in 2006, and this production comes to Princeton from successful runs at the Berkeley Repertory Theatre in California and the Shakespeare Theatre Company in Washington, D.C.

Mary Zimmerman’s “Argonautika” runs through April 6 at McCarter’s Matthews Theatre. Call (609) 258-2787 or visit for information.

Despite dark shadows that loom from start to finish, most notably in the saga of Medea that dominates the second of two acts, Argonautika is more rollicking adventure than tragedy. It is full of whimsy, humor, and high spirits in the face of a dazzling array of human, natural, and supernatural adversities. Ms. Zimmerman’s particular craft lends itself more readily to the rollicking adventure-story elements of the first act than to the somber love story of the second. There are riveting moments here in the Jason-Medea encounter, but this production makes no claim to rival the psycho logical and emotional depths of Euripides’ powerful Medea.

The words in Ms. Zimmerman’s script almost always take a back seat to the visual effects, the spectacle and the theatricality. The text does not rise to the lofty heights of epic or tragedy, and, occasionally, in the vast Matthews Theatre setting, the lines do not project with sufficient clarity and volume.

Mary Zimmerman aficionados may find Argonautika more grand in scope, and — particularly on McCarter’s huge stage — less intimate and nuanced than Metamorphoses. They may find this play less rich in psychological depth and insight than The Secret in the Wings, and they may find the text less literary than Homer’s mighty lines (as translated by Robert Fitzgerald) in Ms. Zimmerman’s The Odyssey.

But the appeal of Argonautika is far-ranging. It engages its audiences in the creative process, winning them over to suspend their disbelief and to accept all sorts of interesting and exciting theatrical devices in joining the eager Argonauts and participating in Jason’s epic voyage.

The first act takes the story from the first alliance of this unsophisticated, down-to-earth Jason (Jake Suffian) with the powerful goddesses Hera (Lisa Tejero) and Athena (Sofia Jean Gomez). He confronts his usurping uncle King Pelias (Allen Gilmore), who devises the seemingly impossible quest for the Golden Fleece. Jason then assembles the heroic band of Argonauts, embarks on his action-packed voyage and, finally, at the end of the first act, arrives in Colchis, ruled by the angry King Aietes (Soren Oliver), protector of the Golden Fleece. Ms. Tejero’s crafty Hera and Ms. Gomez’ powerful and agile Athena, sometimes in the midst of the action, often observing from apart or above, provide valuable narration and incisive commentary, intervening directly when supernatural assistance is needed.

The perils of the voyage emerge as opportunities for the heroic crew members (and Ms. Zimmerman) to display their prowess and ingenuity. Optimism and energy run high and spirits are ebullient.

The recruiting of the renowned crew becomes a pep rally, with characters proudly introducing themselves in rap-style verse to the beat of African drums. A beefy slow-witted Hercules (Mr. Oliver) leads the cheers: “Ar-go-nauts! Ar-go-nauts!”

The large stage is rapidly transformed into the mighty ship Argo. A tall mast rises from floor through the ceiling, sailors climb the rigging, and, until Athena finally quiets the winds, a powerful storm tosses even the mightiest warriors to and fro across the deck.

Daniel Ostling’s simple set, constructed of the polished planks of a large ship, provides rich resources for inventive staging, with trap doors in floor and ceiling, a high, wide walkway on stage right, a drawbridge, a ladder and numerous entrances from right, left and upstage. Puppet constructions by Mr. Montenegro and eclectic costuming of Ms. Kuzmanic create the voracious Harpies, gossamer and wire creatures carried on poles, and an ugly giant of a King Amycus, who delights in pummeling each visitor to death in a boxing match. A huge, swirling green fabric conveniently outfitted with two bulbous eyeballs turns into a deadly sea monster. An alluring water nymph covered in tinsel emerges from the trap door in the floor to steal away Hercules’ beloved arms-bearer Hylas.

Nuanced, dramatic lighting by John Culbert and original music and sound by Andre Pluess and Ben Sussman help to create the rapidly changing moods and settings of the production and contribute significantly to the unfolding of this spellbinding tale.

Ms. Zimmerman’s well rehearsed, balanced, and versatile ensemble brings to vibrant life one scene after another and in rapid succession. The two and a half hours of Argonautika are constantly engaging and entertaining.

Following the Argonauts’ testosterone-filled heroics of the first act and Jason and Medea’s ill-fated passions of the second act, Ms. Zimmerman leaves her audience with a beautiful final celestial tableau, as the heroes of the drama are transported into constellations of stars in the sky. But first she leads her audience to ponder the desolation and destruction. In a stark contemporary reference, she delivers a sobering reminder of the ends of all “these glorious missions of men.” The company, in chorus, cynically deride, “teach the foreigner a lesson, destroy the tyrant … seize that shining fleece and the world will change … seize that fleece and there will be an end to evil. Whatever. They all end up like this in the end.”

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