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Argonautika at Berkeley Rep

Fleecing Heroism

Macarthur Genius and playwright Mary Zimmerman describes her affinity for mythology this way: “As a child, myths always felt to me like grown-up fairy tales. Like fairy tales they contained adventures and supernatural elements…but I always sensed that there was a serious and darker layer to them.” Greek mythology is, as Zimmerman alludes to, alluring for its depth and fantastic symbolism. But these canonical myths are simultaneously intimidating for their layered darknesses. Zimmerman, however, pulls back the curtain and finds vitality in said mythology, specifically in her "Argonautika", a re-telling of the fabled quest for the Golden Fleece embarked upon by Jason and his Argonauts.

Making its West Coast debut at the Berkeley Rep, Zimmerman draws from the classic telling of the story -- she used Peter Green’s translation of Apollonious of Rhodes’ epic "Argonautika" -- tweaking and beveling only slightly the edges of the story. The tale of Jason and his band of Argonauts is one filled with typical Greek über-heroism as well as, more subtly, streaks of tragic and decidedly unheroic behavior.

Corralled by a wicked king into an impossible mission to retrieve the Golden Fleece from another wicked king, Jason assembles an all-star cast to voyage with him on his ship, the Argo. They stave off nymphs, harpies, sea-monsters and lustful women and, eventually, Jason seduces Medea -- Wicked King Number Two’s daughter -- thereby gaining access to the fleece. What unfolds afterwards, however, is perhaps the story’s most interesting twist. Without spoiling things too much, suffice it to say Jason dies years later after staggering -- in a bout of poverty-induced nostalgia -- into the rotting hull of the Argo when the ancient wood, at the behest of the Gods, collapses and crushes him.

Zimmerman’s telling, of course, is not the point: her theatrical magic is. Quoting actor and playwright Charles Ludlam, Zimmerman says “in the superlative theater, you shoot an arrow and then draw a circle around it. You make it the perfect thing; you make the choice right with the circumstances you have." What this translates into is the embrace of all the awkward transitions theater inherently contains, an embrace of the action that can be seen -- humans, for instance, waving blue streamers about to indicate wind, outlandish puppets for the sea monster or the harpies. That, in the end, is what separates good theater from the cinema where all that should not be seen is discreetly off camera.

Choreographed marvelously, Zimmerman’s "Argonautika" plumes with tiny wonders: the window on high from whence the God’s carry on their constant arguments, a separate narrative running alongside Jason and his quest, or the efficient use of props, doubling up in their purposes, such as when the actors playing the Women of Lemnos, telling the story of their murderous ways, turn their red scarves mid-story into streams of blood.

"Argonautika" is not necessarily an optimistic story, even though Jason’s band acquires the Fleece. It is, in fact, a rather modern tale: love and heroism, irresistible to humankind, prove finally to be fatal and self-destructively shallow. As Medea croons sadly, “I traded my heart for a handful of straw.” But as the Gods ask with a touch of humor -- humor that is striking since the Gods, as usual, puppet the lives and dooms of the characters -- “What else could she do?”

Ancient and epic, that question is no less fresh now than it was then. And Zimmerman’s rendition masterfully thrusts this haunting question mark into our faces again. We lead our exhausting, sometimes failing, sometimes delightful lives, but in either case: What else can we do?

"Argonautika"
At The Berkeley Rep
Runs through Sun Dec 16
Tickets: $16.50 - $60