Sunday, March 16 was the premier of Mary Zimmerman’s Argonautika at the Matthews Theater at McCarter. The two-and-a-half-hour play is an adaptation of the voyage of Jason and the Argonauts, starring Jake Suffian as Jason, Lisa Tejero as Hera, and Sofia Jean Gomez as Athena. Zimmerman, known for her inventive vision, won a Tony for Best Direction in 2002 for her adaptation of Ovid’s Metamorphoses. Zimmerman’s production is an impressive, oftentimes explosive, interpretation of the story of Jason and the Argonauts, filled with whim, wit, and a touch of the modern.
Argonautika presents some obvious staging problems: “How do you do a fleet of boats? Or 50 men on board? Or sea monsters or gods flying around?” said Zimmerman in an interview with Lila Neugebauer. Zimmerman handles the unique challenges of adapting the myth with grace and innovation, turning the stage into a beautiful wooden deck. At stage-right is a tall mast with four ropes attached to the top, and at stage-left is a plank suspended from the ceiling, running parallel to its width. To recreate a violent storm incited by Boreus, a large white sheet is attached to the mast, and members of the cast take turns beating it against the pole to mimic the effect of billowing winds. Some actors slide back and forth across the stage, shouting, while others jump and swing from the ropes. The result is a complete transformation: the members of the Shakespeare Theatre Company easily become Jason and the Argonauts, tossed dangerously about on a rocking ship, battling an angry god determined to keep them from departing.
One of the best directorial achievements of the production is Zimmerman’s fantastic evil creatures. With the help of costume designer Ana Kuzmanic and puppetry designer Michael Montenegro, Zimmerman translates the Ancient Greek beasts into visual spectacles. When the Argonauts arrive at Salmydessus, they find the hysterical King Phineus running from Harpies. Zimmerman’s interpretation of the food-snatching lady-birds are junk-art beasts with monstrous faces like hockey masks. The wire-paper-feather constructions are attached to long black poles carried by cast members, who frantically run back and forth and screech. The Harpies, like Zimmerman, are not without a sense of humor. One actor pulls a small handle attached to his pole and his corresponding Harpy happily defecates on King Phineus. Another Harpy barfs on him. While the Harpies’ effect is one part side-splitting laughter and one part physical disgust, Zimmerman’s Amycus is nothing but uproar. The actor who doubles as Hercules is the legs of the giant boxer, while one of the smaller-sized actresses sits on his shoulders and acts as Amycus’s torso. Both are draped under a huge sheet. Amycus’s arms are at least four feet long with boulders for hands and his head is a huge appendage with a crude, rock-like face. Somewhere within the folds of the sheet one of the actors manipulates the mouth of the creature as he roars and blunders about the stage, knocking over men. The boxing match with Pollux is a hilarious display—the twelve-foot-tall beast throws punches and the Argonauts heckle like fratters. But Zimmerman’s creatures aren’t all ridiculous; her interpretation of the sleepless dragon that guards the Golden Fleece is haunting. As Jason and Medea flee with the Fleece, their victory is interrupted by a slow, chilling hiss. Out of the shadowy darkness comes a glowing yellow orb nearly four feet wide. The dragon eye is a huge Chinese lantern suspended in mid-air. An actor dressed in black kneels on the ground, proffering the eye to Jason. Medea sings sweetly to the floating ball. The actor slowly closes a wire handle, and the dragon’s eyelid slips lower and lower with the sound of the lulling music.
The production falls short in its performance, not in Zimmerman’s aesthetic vision. Allen Gilmore, who plays Kings Pelias and Phineus, among others, is often too shrill and completely one-dimensional in his silliness. Gomez’s Athena, in a stunning crimson dress and golden helmet, is equally guilty of overacting, using a “warrior’s” voice too deep to be her own. Her gravity is at times reminiscent of a teenage girl trying too hard to be a bro. Probably the worst part is Suffian’s Jason, whose blandness leaves the audience wondering why we ought to be invested in the Argonauts’ quest at all. Jesse J. Perez as Idmon and Søren Oliver as Hercules are rather good in their performances, but Atley Loughride’s Medea is the play’s gem. Despite her sometimes over-squeakiness, she is skillfully fluid in her hysteria, moving from youthful naïveté to spellbound sexual obsession and finally to vengeful murderousness.
The oftentimes dubious acting of Argonautika does not detract from what Zimmerman is so well known for—her majestic and unforgettable artistic direction. Parts of the story are disjointed, the modern dialogue seems forced, and the ending is a little rushed, yet in spite of it all the play closes with a stunning final scene that overshadows the missteps. Like the dragon-eye that hangs aloft in space, Zimmerman’s vision is a strange species of beautiful. At once powerful and beguiling, Zimmerman’s eye navigates McCarter’s space with the control and grace of a master.