Myths in the Modern Theater
Mary Zimmerman, of Chicago's Lookingglass Theater, is a true national treasure – if by no other measure than the MacArthur Genius Fellowship she was awarded for adapting “seemingly untheatrical source material from classic world literature into compelling theater.” (the MacArthur Foundation's own words). “Arabian Nights,” “The Notebooks of Leonardo da Vinci,” “Metamorphoses,” and “Galileo Galilei,” “The Odyssey” – these and a slew of other works are testament to her “genius.”
What makes Zimmerman's work so valuable is her joyous, endlessly engaging use of the full forces of theater. In the telling of sweeping epics, she transports the audience into ancient worlds filled with a resplendent reality of their own, made not just engaging but intellectually stimulating. Using puppets, music, dance, song, poetry, lavish costumes, clever staging, and surprisingly simple but intriguingly effect stage architecture, Zimmerman's work is designed to be entertaining, thoughtful, and transformative.
On stage, A Noise Within (ANW), L.A.'s classical company, is now producing Zimmerman's Argonautika complete with the sailors climbing the ship's ropes to billow the sail and the Woman of Lemnos singing and dancing on silks (aerial acrobatics while suspended on Lycra drapes).
Argonautika is an adaptation of an ancient Greek legend – Jason and The Voyage of the Argonaut, by Apollonius Rhodius in the 3 rd Century BCE – with certain wrinkles from a Roman re-telling of the myth by Gaius Valerius Flaccus centuries later under the Emperor Vespasian (c. 90 AD). [The Romans were always laying claim the cultural glories of the much older, much more prestigious civilization they'd conquered – mostly to give their empire international legitimacy].
The epic begins when Jason, a brash one-sandaled youth of self-defined heroic stature, asserts his claim to the kingship of Iolcus (being a very early name for Macedonia, which would later spawn Alexander the Great). Raised in the mountains by a Centaur, Jason comes late to his inheritance when he learns that Pelias (a bastard half-brother of Jason's naughty mama) is currently ruling the roost in Iolcus. But when faced with Jason and his buddies – heroes all, Pelias remembers the Oracle's oracular warning that he would be felled by a one-sandaled kid. So Pelias acknowledges Jason's claim, oh sure! BUT – in a move to get rid of Jason, Pelias lays on him one death-defying task to prove his worth (hoping that in this case Death won't be defied) – find and bring the prized golden fleece to the current sitter-on-the-throne.
The intertwining entanglement of claims and counterclaims, descent from gods and demi-gods, and heroics versus bluster is masterfully handled in Zimmerman's breezy dramaturgy. Jason's voyage on the good ship Argo – with the heroic 8 plus the formidable, self-promoting Hercules, a legend unto his own vanity – is a seemingly impossible task made tragic, comic, and romantic by Zimmerman's uniquely gifted approach to character, movement, and motivation.
Surely, for the nautical warriors manning the Argo, the distance alone was a challenge – the Argo was little more than a leaky skiff sailing the rough waters of the Ionian Sea in the Third Century BCE. But the obstacles were daunting to the point of death. - monsters, goddesses.
Perhaps most monstrous and yet tragic of all Jason's obstacles was the formidable sorceress, Medea – the wife and mother of his two sons who he abandoned because, well, honey, you always knew the golden fleece was priority one for me! Yeah, it's that kind of story.
And when it's a good tale, well told, with an ear and eye toward the magic of total theater – it is surely a product of genius.