Ryan Artzberger and Atley Loughridge in Argonautika
(© Liz Lauren)
Ryan Artzberger and Atley Loughridge in Argonautika
(© Liz Lauren)
With her delightful Argonautika, now receiving its world premiere production at Chicago's Lookingglass Theatre Company, Mary Zimmerman returns to the turf she likes best -- although, in this case, the "turf" happens to be the ocean. Those familiar with Zimmerman's Broadway and regional work, most notably the Tony Award-winning Metamorphoses, know that she's most at home among the antique classics of Western Civilization. So it's not surprising that, this time she has focused on the ancient Greek myths of Jason and his band of sailor-heroes, the Argonauts, in their quest for the Golden Fleece.

As adapter, Zimmerman taps the ancient Latin authors Gaius Valerius Flaccus and Apollonius Rhodius, who must have been the first to collect into a coherent narrative the many stories of Jason, the voyage of the Argo, and Jason's marriage to Medea. (Yes, that Medea!) As director, Zimmerman uses inventive, complex blocking and choreography but the simplest of scenic means to tell the tales of Jason and his crew. However, there are so many diversions and side stories that Jason frequently becomes lost in it all. In fact, the character most likely to capture audiences' interest in the significantly sly Act I is Hercules, while Act II definitely belongs to Medea.

The episodic nature of the piece makes for a long narrative; the show clocks in at about two and three-quarter hours, yet it's never tedious. It begins with the unexpected arrival of young Jason (Ryan Artzberger, in a full beard) at the palace of his usurping uncle, King Pelias, and ends with a brief epilogue about the death of Jason after Medea wreaks horrific vengeance on him for his infidelity.

It's telling that we don't see Jason grow or develop through the course of the show. He's physically brave, ambitious to achieve his uncle's crown at the start, and ambitious to win a kingdom via marriage at the end, but the dots are not otherwise connected; the qualities of leadership or spiritual depths that might make the character appealing are not evident. In the end, he is a cad, so the absence of spiritual depth is perhaps intentional, but the result is a hero who's a void. One wonders why war goddess Athena and goddess-in-chief Hera dote on Jason and engineer his success.

Still, Zimmerman's resourcefulness is just right for this picaresque adventure full of sea monsters, flying creatures, giants, magic, nymphs, and goddesses. (Only one male god makes a brief appearance.) From the acrobatic athleticism of the mostly male ensemble to the dry puckishness of Lisa Tejera as Hera, the 14 cast members pull together like the oarsmen on Jason's great ship. The non-human creatures are represented by the fanciful puppets of Michael Montenegro.

The scenic design, by longtime Zimmerman collaborator Daniel Ostling, suggests both the ship and the vastness of sky and sea. Ostling slices the Lookingglass' flexible space down the middle; the audience is seated on either side of a long, narrow platform of blond wood that represents the deck of the Argo, with a thick mast rising from it. There is a trap door in the stage floor and space for "the gods" above; actors can appear from anywhere, entering from at least four different levels via foot, flying cables, or the ropes of the ship's rigging.

The production is enhanced by John Culbert's warm, sometimes hot lighting plot, and by Ann Kuzmanic's costumes. The men wear gauzy white skirts and tunics inspired by the classic Greek chiton, while the women sport colorful, modern-looking party clothes. There is some contemporary incidental music by Andre Pluess and Ben Sussman, including a percussive rap chant that introduces the Argonauts at the start and is repeated at the curtain call.

All these up-to-date touches may be meant to remind audiences that Jason's story is relevant here and now. To that end, Zimmerman also tacks a modern moral onto the tale. Jason, after all, is sent by one tyrannical king to steal the Golden Fleece from another tyrant; both kings break their promises to Jason and defend to the death the interests of their own countries. Seasoned in manhood by these trials, Jason goes on to betray Medea. "Destroy the tyrant, defend the nation, become a man," Zimmerman summarizes, taking a final swipe at Jason and the history of male dominance: "We all end up like this in the end." Perhaps the ancient Greek concept of manhood isn't that different from our own.