Myth Understanding 

Mary Zimmerman's ship-shape voyage at Berkeley Repertory Theatre

Mary Zimmerman is getting to be a regular fixture at Berkeley Repertory Theatre. Argonautika is the fifth show the Chicago-based writer-director has brought there in the last dozen years, four of them West Coast premieres: Journey to the West (1996); Metamorphoses (1999), which went on to win 2002 Tony Awards for best play and best direction; The Secret in the Wings (2004); and now Argonautika.

Each of these was an offbeat take on myth and legend, and the new one is no exception. Argonautika is distinguished both by its sly dissection of the myth of Jason and the Argonauts while faithfully retelling it, and by its beautifully integrated mix of the mythic and the colloquial. Classical invocative passages intoned in unison are followed by the Argonauts introducing themselves in a cheerleaderesque "Roll Call" song.

Zimmerman's staging is full of inventive, low-tech visuals that are made more evocative by their naked theatricality. A centaur carries the barest skeleton of a horse's ass, a sheet can be both a roiling sea and a monster emerging from it, and a marionette baby is slaughtered by cutting its strings. Daniel Ostling's set is more Ikea than Achean, a box of bare wood planks (to suggest a ship), with a mezzanine catwalk and two holes above, one of which holds the mast when the voyage is underway.

The trouble with telling the story of Jason and his all-star group of heroes' journey on the Argo is that the quest's all about getting the Golden Fleece, which they're not going to manage without Medea's help. And once you've introduced her, it's hard for the heroes' journey not to become overshadowed by how horrifically the Medea-Jason romance will end. No wonder many retellings conclude with the end of the voyage.

For Zimmerman, on the other hand, it's something she can really sink her teeth into. Her Medea, played feelingly by the acrobatic Atley Loughridge, is a naive virgin (albeit one with witchy powers and tattoos), and once she's been struck with Cupid's arrow it remains sticking through her for the remainder of the play, her white dress becoming progressively bloodier from the open wound. This part may be a love story, but it's a love that destroys Medea's life — not later but now, when her love for Jason makes her betray her father, her brothers, her country, and everything she knew. Forget the tragic ending — her story's beginning is tragic as well, even if it is awfully convenient for Jason and his fearless crew.

The haunting feeling of foreboding is embodied by the blind seer Idmon (an affecting Jesse J. Perez), who knows when terrible things are going to happen but knows that telling people isn't going to change anything.

It's a long way from Ray Harryhausen's Jason and the Argonauts. There is, however, a cute nod to the film's signature stop-motion sequences when Jason is beset by a bunch of tiny skeleton puppets.

The ensemble cast of fourteen sees a few local faces joining Zimmerman's out-of-towners, including Andy Murray as cunning jerk Meleager and blustery Boreas. Casey Jackson karate chops a boastful giant as Pollux, and Søren Oliver is a marvelously dimwitted but perpetually pumped-up Hercules, and imposingly imperious as Medea's father Aietes.

The gods here are a flighty bunch, and fond of platform shoes. Christa Scott-Reed is a nicely mischievous Hera, if her Disney princess dress (by Ana Kuzmanic) is a bit gaudy. Sofia Jean Gomez has a posturing swagger as Athena, and Tessa Klein makes a ditzy Aphrodite. Allen Gilmore is an amusing rascal as King Pelias, who sends Jason on the wild fleece chase in the first place. "Who gives a fuck about the fleece, are you serious?" he says to his guards.

Jason never was the brightest bulb, but Jake Suffian's lunkheaded portrayal is so flat that you're left to fill in the blanks. He comes on to Medea in such a halfhearted way that you figure he must be just playing her, but his pledge of eternal love seems guileless, despite the hooded Fury who walks in to transcribe his promises to hold against him later.

The second act loses steam, in part because Jason and Medea have no chemistry and partly because threads woven so nicely into the beginning are left dangling, such as Pelias' comeuppance and whatever happened to his kid who went along on the Argo (petite Ronete Levenson, who also plays Andromeda). It'd be a shame to sacrifice encounters such as the women of Lemnos, which is one of the highlights of the piece but lacks consequence, but sometimes it feels more like a series of incidents than a story. It's ultimately redeemed, however, by an ending that's simple and yet so beautiful that it sends you enchanted into the night.


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