Awash with the spray of the yet-unconquered sea, the stage at Berkeley Rep (designed by Daniel Ostling) represents the wooden ships and wood palaces of preclassical times, as the cast does the heroes, demigods, goddesses, kings, witches and nymphs from legend that move through.
This is the changing world described in the post-Homeric panoply of polished scenes from the Argonautika of Apollonius of Rhodes, with Latin variants from Gaius Valerius Flaccus, as rendered by Mary Zimmerman, who’s adapted and directed what could be called a postmodern cover of the epic of the first heroic voyage to the East (ominous predecessor to the Trojan War), the winning of the Golden Fleece by the Greeks, and the tale of the love and later disaffection of Jason and Medea.
It all starts out innocently enough with a young man (Jake Suffian as Jason), on his way to bid his uncle happy birthday, helping an old lady by carrying her across a raging stream and losing a sandal in the process.
But the old lady is Hera, Queen of the Gods (a sly Christa Scott-Reed) in disguise; the sandal is pinned to the bed of the stream by the lance of armed Athena (Sofia Jean Gomez), and the uncle is the hypochondriac king (Allen Gilmore), who has usurped his brother’s throne, and sends the well-wishing nephew on an impossible quest because he’s heard a single-sandalled caller will be the death of him.
The opening vignette of Hera in disguise on Jason’s back (and coquettishly swivelling around, her legs round his hips, to face him) is a good beginning, which seems to bode well for the tone of a story, a collection of episodes, that sprawls over two millenia back to its bookish sources, and maybe as much again before to some of its legendary sources.
The same holds true for the beginning of the second act, when Hera and Athena huddle with an ingenuous Aphrodite (Tessa Klein, delightfully funny) to get her support and that of her spoiled brat, Eros (Ronette Levenson) to literally stick Medea (Atley Loughridge) with the disconcerting love-pangs of desire for Jason. Her powers will be at his disposal in the impossible contest set by yet another king, Medea’s father Aietes (Soren Oliver), to impede him from swiping the treasured Fleece.
The delicious convocation of the goddesses, Aphrodite attended by a buff archaic hairdresser, has the comic air of suburban housewives in a sitcom gossipping and cooking up a scheme, yet something rare and fabulous—timeless—about it.
In an interview published in the program, Zimmerman talks about how she adapted all that sprawling material through compression, working out ways of staging with the cast in mind during a month-long rehearsal period, opening herself up “to the voice of the text,” and sometimes making crazy, impolite, even unconsidered choices, like an arrow shot in the dark.
Zimmerman’s spiel seems refreshing, compelling even, coming from the Mac-Arthur Fellow who penned hits like Journey to the West and Metamorphoses. In effect, she’s saying that she aims at what Byron and Pushkin, in particular, canonized as the choice modern approach to involved, episodic traditional material: the ongoing improvisation.
Unfortunately, the results are the opposite of the inventive lightness improvisation should be. Not that Zimmerman’s staging is heavy; it’s a banal pastiche, a grab-bag of all the familiar (even cliched) “presentational” theatrics, performance art and story-telling devices made popular since the ’60s and ’70s.
The cast of 14 gets little chance to really act or perform except in snatches, otherwise moving around a lot en masse. Besides Scott-Reed and Klein, Soren Oliver is noteworthy for pumping a lot of juice into the part of Hercules, written as a boffo jock. Loughridge seems badly miscast as Medea. Zimmerman’s relation to her sources, which seems mediated by schemata from Joseph Campbell concerning heroic quests for self-knowledge and maturity, seems about the same as a screenwriter thrown into a last-minute rewrite, and her ruminations, even the script itself, have the air of tossing out ideas in a story pitch.
Onstage, Argonautika rocks back and forth between the forced glee of banal, contemporary sarcasm and an awkward, uneasy pantomime of ancient piety, or of romance in bygone times. There’s not much space for irony once the insouciant plot gets cranked up and running, only to end abruptly in a rushed, premature denouement telling of the various tragic fates of the Argonauts (omitting some of the most interesting in common) and the more familiar tragedy of Medea killing Jason’s young bride and their children, which in true cinematic fashion Zimmerman alludes to, citing the Argonautika as its “prequel.”
Zimmerman tries to preserve the magical wonder of her material, yet make it contemporary. The result is a kind of tabloid pastiche, but lacking intimacy (which seems to be another of the adaptor’s goals), which the originals achieved through finished, detailed tableau-like episodes, each a compressed cameo story in itself. Zimmerman begins each act with something like this, but the definition of scenes unravels in over-reaching yet banal attempts to improvise, to put the spin, the time stamp of the moment, on a story that’s already proved timeless.
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