Perhaps the best way to describe Mary Zimmerman’s adaptation of Argonautika at Lookingglass Theatre is to say that it is, well... Zimmermanesque. For those of you who’ve seen her works before, you know very well what I mean. And for those of you who haven’t, you can certainly expect a production that is both innovative and elaborate.
Following the quest of Jason, played by Ryan Artzburger, and his crew of heroes for the Golden Fleece, Argonautika is a tale that involves sea monsters, magic spells, fire-breathing bulls, and many other fascinating creatures and objects along those lines. You’re probably wondering right now how it is possible for something this grand to be staged, and I thought the exact same thing as I sat in the theater listening to the prologue. However, Zimmerman successfully manages to take the audience on the journey with Jason, raising up different locales and bringing the various mythical creatures to life with the ingenious use of puppets.
A good place to start in the discussion of the play is its staging. The production feels almost like a dance, with character entrances and scene transitions smoothly incorporated into the narration of the story. The staging creates a sense of fluidity and keeps the moving. The characters flow into and out of various forms of narration, from acting to using their bodies as symbolic representations of larger themes.
The design team did a very good job as well. The whole of the stage, including the walls and the roof, is used in very innovative ways. Using trapdoors and a few simple stage drops, the stage takes the form of the hulk of a ship, the desert, and even the open sea. The lights and the sounds are beautifully done and work together to create the appropriate atmosphere.
Zimmerman’s style is one that recognizes the physical limits of theater, but rather than letting that be a disadvantage, she lets her creativity fly and uses it to communicate in a very unique way. A scene that’s representative of this idea is when Jason and the crew are passing through the clashing rocks. The way Zimmerman stages it, with the goddess Athena holding two rocks apart, brings out several of the layers embedded in the scene. It’s certainly proof that there are some things that can only be done in theater.
The cast of 14 is very talented and delivers a solid performance, with each actor playing several roles. The teamwork dynamic was very clear upon watching the actors all working together. Lisa Tejero and Marianne Mayberry were very strong in their roles as Hera and Athena, respectively. Artzburger was great as the leader of the Argonauts and Atley Loughridge sweetly portrayed Medea. Jesse J. Perez delivered a notable performance as Idmon the soothsayer, with a clear and booming voice.
Helping the actors tell the story is a set of beautifully built puppets designed by Michael Montenegro. These body-sized puppets come to life as the various mythical creatures, transforming the actors into the eyes of a dragon, centaurs, and even an 8-foot tall King Amycus. The puppets play an essential role in creating the magical feel of the play.
While the central story is about the journey of the crew, and the ending of the tale is quite dark, the side stories of the characters are presented in a very heart-warming way. Several times, the play zooms in on individual characters during key moments and captures the emotion of the scenes very well. One very moving moment is when Idmon chooses to board the ship despite having foreseen his death on the journey.
The adaptation is both accessible and humorous, without any loss to its epic feeling. The grandness of the journey is depicted very well and the production is visually stunning. While a few of the instances of modernization feel a little strained and out of place, on the whole everything is kept together very well. In less than three hours, Zimmerman delivers a coherent tale in an elegant and beautiful manner.