Shakespeare Theatre's Argonautika

Mary Zimmerman’s Argonautika, currently running at the Shakespeare Theatre, would be more accurately described as a theatrical event than as a play. It is an evening of tight ensemble work that explores the myth of Jason and the quest for the Golden Fleece. It manages to be magical and irreverent, touching and funny, spectacular and fun. The imaginative way in which Zimmerman and the cast and crew approach the story keeps the well-known myth fresh and exciting.

Long ago an oracle told King Pelias, Jason’s uncle, that he should fear the one sandaled man. When Jason visits wearing one sandal, after losing the other crossing a rough river while bearing the goddess Hera on his back, Pelias plots to get rid of him. Pelias promises Jason the kingdom if he can sail across treacherous seas and bring back the Golden Fleece. Jason agrees, having little choice. He gathers his crew, which includes Hercules, Atalanta, Idmon the seer and others. The crew is watched over by the goddesses Athena and Hera, who serve as their guides and our narrators. Jason and his crew encounter nymphs, sea monsters, angry gods, lusty women, and other perils before coming to the island of Colchis.

There the arrogant King Aeetes promises Jason the Golden Fleece if and only if he can yoke a pair of fire breathing oxen and sow serpent teeth into the ground. Hera and Aphrodite convince Eros to shoot an arrow into Media, Aeetes daughter, causing her to fall in love with Jason. She helps him complete this task, get the Golden Fleece, and escape, forsaking her home, country, and family.

The true ensemble nature of this piece is present throughout – from the chorus introduction spoken by all in unison to the quick unassuming curtail call to the program in which the actors are listed as playing their main part “and others.” It is difficult to point out all the strong performances. They range from the almost always present sarcastic and strong Sofia Jean Gomez as Athena to the 30 seconds of another actress as the water nymph, whose physicality was truly fluid and rippling. Unfortunately, Jake Suffian’s performance as Jason was as wooden as the set surrounding him. But the strength of the ensemble and the nature of the work keep this from being distracting in all but a couple scenes.

The costumes and set, designed by Ana Kuzmanic and Daniel Ostling are deceptively simply and incredibly striking. The set adapts to the changing locale. Sailors can sit and row, and kings can rule standing from a high balcony. Water nymphs rise from the floor, and gods descend from above. The exits can be a door in a house, or the gates of hell. The costumes put most of the characters in vaguely Greek inspired white shirts and shorts or skirts. In these are great details, such as a white trim creating an eye shape on the shirt of Idmon the seer. Medea’s white dress becomes stained with red as she suffers from her love wound. As she commits more and more crimes, and grows deeper and deeper in love, the red spreads, signifying her love, but also the blood shed during Jason and Medea’s escape, and the blood that is yet to be shed when Jason leaves Medea.

This production contains a lot of what it best about theatre – a group of people gathering to share a story. Mary Zimmerman and her cast are endlessly inventive as they share this story with us – refusing to let any traditional rules of the theatre hold them back. They find whatever device tells the story best from moment to moment – whether it is a monologue, a song, puppets, or two eyes held in a large green sheet. They create an evening that is hard to describe, and hard to forget.

4 stars
Through March 2nd


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