theater (reviews)

review: argonautika

[originally published: http://aislesay.com/CHI-ARGONAUTIKA.html%5D

ARGONAUTIKA

Adapted and Directed by Mary Zimmerman
Lookingglass Theatre Company
821 North Michigan Avenue at Pearson / (312) 337-0665
www.lookinggasstheatre.org
Through December 23, 2006

Reviewed by Martha Wade Steketee
October 28, 2006

Design rules in the spectacular, wooden decked, trapeze strung, cabled and catwalked rectilinear playspace created at Lookingglass for Mary Zimmerman‘s “Argonautika“, subtitled “The Voyage of Jason and the Argonauts“. Forget your simplistic Saturday afternoon matinee versions of Jason and his intrepid band of muscled seafaring adventurers in pursuit of the Golden Fleece. This version as adapted and directed by Zimmerman, in Daniel Ostling‘s set, lit by John Culbert, dressed by Ana Kuzmanic, with sound design by Andre Pluess and Ben Sussman is more complex and would be a splendid experience by any measure. Add to this mix the magical puppetry byMichael Montenegro and you have a very tasty and nuanced theatrical cocktail indeed.

Zimmerman’s spanking new adaptation of the plays “Gaius Valerius Flaccus”, translated by David R. Slavitt, and “Apollonious Rhodius”, translated by Peter Green provides enough bright spectacle to entertain the preteen set, and sufficient adult themed nuance to entertain every older age group. This journey is more that battles with sea monsters. The major life lessons of loss, loyalty, hubris, honor, and what constitutes family are folded into a scintillating event, as much visual spectacle as verbal and intellectual entertainment. While calm children as young as six could find visual stimulation sufficient to entertain them, this is more than swathes of colored fabric flowing gaily in the wind. The range of spectacle ranges from illuminated puppetry dropped from an upper level trap door (images of “Lonely Goatherd” in “The Sound of Music”) to sailing ships strung together and drawn along to stage to goddesses that “fly” from the stage to the rafters and then pace above, watching the human events with which they have been meddling transpiring below. And life-sized puppets (aching, movingly, of a number of human ages) add to the many dimensions of this experience.

Jason (Ryan Artzberger) is our very human yet partially divine hero, protected and stalked by goddess Hera (Lisa Tejero), representing more maternal and supportive divine instincts than her almost constant militaristic companion Athena (Mariann Mayberry). Hera’s costumed grey, yellows, reds, remain themes throughout the production. Athena’s breast plates and trumpet at times put you in mind of stripper Mazeppa’s “Gotta Have a Gimmick” trumpet in the musical “Gypsy”, and at other times represent a true and military call to arm. Neither of these goddesses is to be dismissed lightly. And both actresses performances are stunning.

Jason’s uncle Pelias (Allen Gilmore), sends Jason on the intended wild goose chase to seek the Golden Fleece to start the adventure moving, and simultaneously roots us in family and the traditions of tragedy. Pelias has received the prediction that he will die “at the hands of a one-sandaled man” and soon into Jason’s adventure we watch him lose a sandal, yet as in all good tragedies, we remain riveted: how will this fate be played out? Hera and Athena guide the action of this adventure as full participants and interlopers in the lives of the humans they love. Hera looming over the Pelias-Jason meeting, in the walkway above the play space, grows slowly on a spectator, and establishes this dynamic within the action of the play. Hera floats; Athena leaps. All of the performances are true to the spirit of each character and worthy of mention. In particular, Atley Loughridgeprovides a moving characterization of Medea. The juxtaposition of her performance and the costuming and special effects created by Ana Kuzmanic is powerful.

Ship rigging, gun whales that appear at the edges of the playing space, puppetry, lighting, music, acrobatics, and fairy dust provide a constant parade of awe-inspiring images. Some final visuals involving lights and astrological signs inspired gasps from my audience. And amid all the pageantry and the stage craft are a number of real and powerful themes: the importance of honoring the gods and goddesses, and the importance of honoring family and staying true to oneself. A fabulous holiday show.

While comparisons can be drawn from the riches of this production to cinematic and theatrical events of many kinds, it must be regarded sui generis at some point. Zimmerman’s genius is in combining traditions from many sources and telling, or retelling, stories in a very direct and theatrical manner. These are stories many thousands of years old, yet they feel fresh and heartbreaking. What more can we ask of a few hours in the theatre?

© Martha Wade Steketee (October 28, 2006)

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