Written and directed by Mary Zimmerman
Adapted from The Voyage of Jason and the Argonauts
Co-produced with McCarter Theatre Center and Shakespeare Theatre Company
Main Season · Roda Theatre
November 2–December 23, 2007
West Coast Premiere
Running time: 2 hours and 30 minutes, including one 15-minute intermission
Tony Award-winning director Mary Zimmerman returns to Berkeley Rep for the West Coast premiere of Argonautika. This time, Zimmerman joins Jason on his ancient quest for the Golden Fleece—an epic journey of love and loss, hubris and honor, danger and adventure. Jason confronts giants, kings, sirens, nymphs, centaurs, sea monsters and one heartsick sorceress. In her latest perilous voyage, Zimmerman shows us that love is the bane of all mankind—and yet it’s all that we know of heaven on this earth. See Argonautika in Berkeley before it sails for the East Coast.
Mary Zimmerman · Adapter and Director
Daniel Ostling · Scenic Design
Ana Kuzmanic · Costume Design
John Culbert · Lighting Design
Andre Pluess and Ben Sussman · Sound Design and Original Composition
Michael Montenegro · Puppetry Design
Cynthia Cahill · Stage Manager
Amy Potozkin · Casting
Justin Blanchard · Hylas / Dymas
Allen Gilmore · Pelias and others
Sofia Jean Gomez · Athena
Casey Jackson · Pollux and others
Chris Kipiniak · Castor and others
Tessa Klein · Aphrodite and others
Ronete Levenson · Andromeda and others
Atley Loughridge · Medea
Andy Murray · Meleager
Søren Oliver · Hercules / Aietees
Jesse J. Perez · Idmon and others
Christa Scott-Reed · Hera
Paul Oakley Stovall · Amycus and others
Jake Suffian · Jason
“Theatrical wizard Mary Zimmerman’s stunningly imaginative, engagingly comic, affecting and invigoratingly immediate Lookingglass Theatre retelling of the ancient myth of Jason and the Argonauts’ quest for the Golden Fleece, and his ill-fated romance with the virginal sorceress Medea, is a 2 ½-hour treat in its Berkeley Rep West Coast premiere. Graced with beautiful, deceptively simple design, inventive stagings, beguilingly wry puppets and a thoroughly engaging cast, it’s a modern take on an old tale of ambition, deception, heroism, love and unintended consequences.”—San Francisco Chronicle
“Channels the power of myth to touch us where we live today…[Zimmerman] recounts the epic of Jason and the Argonauts to reveal the hero’s journey as a metaphor for all of us…Images flow seamlessly from one stage picture to another, as Jason (Jake Suffian) rides the ocean’s waves to his destiny…Sets the heart pounding and the imagination ablaze…”—San Jose Mercury News
“The adventure of a lifetime…The experience of seeing the show really is like going on an adventure into some uncharted theatrical territory, and returning with memories to treasure for a long time.”—Contra Costa Times
“Not to be missed…The show takes place in a beautiful, open-backed wooden box (set by Daniel Ostling, stunning lighting by John Culbert) that is meant to evoke the deck of the Argos. To my mind, the set seemed to be more of a storytelling gymnasium in which the actors get a workout taking turns as narrators, playing multiple roles, flying in and out of the set, setting up the ship’s rigging and fighting Michael Montenegro’s terrific bare-bones puppets.”—Theater Dogs
Prologue: from the Artistic Director
An ancient tale, an enduring challenge
It’s sometimes difficult to locate a director’s work inside a production. Not so with Mary Zimmerman, a visionary in the truest sense of the word. Training under the inspired tutelage of Frank Galati, whose after the quake we just produced, Mary has created a body of work that is singular in its visual splendor, bold theatrical language and profound thematic concerns. Argonautika marks the fifth production we’ve presented under her authorship and direction, and while it bears all the markings of her magnificent style, it represents a new dimension in her work.
There is still the use of magic, of re-inventing the world through poetic, imaginative reclamation, of imbuing objects and characters with special powers that have the capability to transform the universe. There is still the tight-knit ensemble that tells an emotionally charged, mythic story through direct address of the audience and athletic feats of prowess that are thrilling to watch. And the story is again an ancient tale, a journey of epic proportions that illuminates our own experience.
But, to my mind, Mary has added something new: a greater sense of urgency. The characters in Argonautika are rougher and tougher; they move through the world with a ferocity that matches the monstrous challenges they face. The beauty of the world is intractably wedded to the ugliness of man’s insatiable appetite for property and war. The planet is in peril, and Argonautika is an artistic attempt to describe the inherent danger of our situation. In the end, it is a condemnation of the idea that war is an essential feature of our nature by presenting a transcendent theatrical event: one that reconnects us with the deep and mysterious nature of life, with the miraculous state of wonder.
What a welcome journey to take.
Prologue: from the Managing Director
Looking forward and back
As we open the third production of our 40th season, we find ourselves pulled in two directions—both forward to our future, and back to our past. Even as we offer commissions to new writers whose work will be showcased on our stages for years to come, and as we instill a love of theatre in new audiences whom we hope will become frequent visitors in the next 40 seasons, we are also revisiting our history, culling through old documents and talking to veteran actors and supporters who help us find meaning in the past.
Our 40-year history exhibit, on the second floor Helen Barber Lobby, highlights just a few of the people and defining moments that have helped create the Berkeley Rep of today. When I look at the many significant steps we’ve taken, I am reminded that the Theatre has always been bold when faced with opportunity. Over the years, we’ve expanded our mission: from being a theatre that focused primarily on adventuresome classics with an interest in new work, to being a theatre that acts as an important source of new work with an abiding interest in the classics.
In the past 40 years, we’ve undergone changes in leadership and in tastes; we’ve grown and thrived, and developed programs to accommodate new community needs, such as the Berkeley Rep School of Theatre.
Berkeley Rep has always had artistic and management leadership that is highly regarded within the national theatre community. However, the continuing strength of our institution, our willingness to embrace growth and change with intelligence and good sense, has undoubtedly come from a remarkable board of directors.
Non-profit boards are far too often the unsung heroes of their organizations. When I look at the timeline of Berkeley Rep’s 40 years, I see not only a history of artistic successes, but of thoughtful, committed and bold decision-making by community members who have dedicated many hours (and the occasional sleepless night) to the serious business of creating a home for artists and a cultural resource for our audiences. This juncture in our company’s history is an excellent time to recognize that leadership, and to thank our current and past trustees.
And of course, I thank you, our audience. We find the leadership to make bold choices from within, but we find the passion to make these bold choices in you, and in your engaged, involved response. Thank you for your attendance.
From myth to stage
Mary Zimmerman and the art of target practice
By Lila Neugebauer
Lila Neugebauer: What first drew you to mythology?
Mary Zimmerman: As a child, myths always felt to me like grown-up fairy tales. Like fairy tales, they contained adventures and supernatural elements. Misfortunes were passed through and triumphed over, epic journeys, impossible tasks. But I always sensed that there was a serious and darker layer to them. I sensed a symbolic content; there was something taboo or transgressive about reading these myths. I knew the Edith Hamilton book on my mother’s shelf was an adult book—yet I read it obsessively, over and over. They moved and fascinated me in some way that hasn’t stopped.
These stories are quite mysterious. They don’t usually end happily, and the world changes or shifts because of the adventures in them. The contemporary or immediate relevance of this story for me is the futility of war, the futility of the conquest mission. Once they have the fleece, it doesn’t mean anything anymore. The conquering—of this Asian or Middle Eastern country—ultimately just brings destruction, and so much is lost. The whole mission is just a pretext—one man’s way of getting rid of his nephew, who he’s afraid is going to kill him. It’s important to remember that there’s a great futility to the entire heroic, idealized venture.
It’s no stretch to feel the relevance of that point, but are there particular challenges you encounter when adapting such ancient material for contemporary audiences?
These stories have proven their relevance and worth by sticking around. It’s not just a conspiracy of literature teachers—that wouldn’t last thousands of years! If they didn’t have something to say to us about the condition of being a person, of facing loss and diminishment, they would be obscure and forgotten.
The challenging part of adapting anything that wasn’t written for the stage is that it wasn’t written for the stage to easily accommodate it. How do you do a fleet of boats? Or 50 men on board? Or sea monsters or gods flying around? Compress time and space, elongate certain moments? Putting things into dialogue as opposed to narration can be far more engaging, but it can slow things down. You have to ask: what are you going to prioritize in your adaptation? The task is to find the essence through compression.
In both of the original epics, there’s something like a hundred Argonauts on board. But they don’t coalesce into a band of brothers in the way that you want them to; an Argonaut will appear for a scene and then you never see him again. They don’t have full arcs. So in order to create some of those arcs, I researched guys on the boat and incorporated their stories from the larger body of Greek myth. For instance, I have Hercules making constant reference to his mighty deed in infancy: Hera sent snakes to strangle him in his crib, but he killed them instead.
You know, one aspect I particularly adore is that Hercules and Hylas are clearly boyfriends, and it has no moral value one way or another. It doesn’t diminish Hercules’ masculinity an iota. In fact, it enhances it. Hercules’ anguish at losing Hylas is one of the great romances of the story.
Let’s talk about the Jason legend—what was your source material?
I’ve known the Jason story in the same way I’ve known fairy tales and the other myths since I was little—from Edith Hamilton’s Mythology, on which I’ve based my entire career!
The classic version of this tale is the Apollonious of Rhodes epic, and I chose the Peter Green translation, which is basically the standard. But in researching various translations, I came across another version of the Argonautika, written in Latin (as opposed to Greek), a couple of centuries later by a Roman poet named Gaius Valerius Flaccus. Combining these two texts is like doing Homer’s Odyssey and then his cousin Fred’s Odyssey—a very obscure version. There’s a section in the adaptation where Jason’s parents, upon hearing that their fate is sealed—that they’re doomed—kill themselves, which is really Roman. That would only come from the Latin version, because the Greeks didn’t celebrate suicide like that at all. In fact they had quite a negative feeling about it. So it’s not just two different translations, it’s two different original authors. I was drawn to the story in its spirit of rollicking adventure—there’s tremendous humor in it, as well as humanity.
You’ve discussed elsewhere Medea’s role in the story—and Jason’s markedly unheroic tendencies. What kind of a leading man is Jason?
He definitely acts unheroically at the very end of the story, although the Apollonious of Rhodes version concludes with their arrival back home. It doesn’t go into that story we know of Medea. Among other things, this tale is of course the prequel to the Medea story.
One of my earliest images for the production was a girl with an arrow struck through her—once she’s shot, that she would have this arrow stuck in her. That’s actualized in the way it’s written; the metaphors are so solid. I imagined we would see her white dress get bloodier and bloodier from that very painful love. The depiction of love or lust in this show is dark, destructive. It renders someone helpless. It really bloodies her up, turning her into a kind of monster. In terms of the Medea myth, it’s important to be reminded that she was a virgin girl—just a maiden minding her own business—and the gods used her to help Jason on his mission by shooting her full of love for him. In our play, she even tries to pull the arrow out of her chest, and she can’t. It’s nothing she wants, nothing she asks for. She’s absolutely tormented by what it’s prompting her to do. But it’s the gods: she has no power over it and she can’t escape it.
In terms of Jason, bear in mind that for the Ancient Greeks being heroic had more to do with having survived and gone through a lot, as opposed to inherent qualities of virtue. Jason is a reluctant hero as all epic heroes are—from Frodo Baggins, who doesn’t want to go, to Odysseus, who is trying to get home. E.T. is trying to get home. Dorothy is trying to get home. They’re not trying to get out. It’s the getting back that they’re looking forward to.
This idea of the reluctant journeyer…What do you think that’s about?
Campbell might say that the hero’s journey is one of self-actualization, and that’s not necessarily a painless, pleasant thing. Leaving our childhood is not something that we necessarily do willingly. One of my all-time favorite lines in the Odyssey is when Athena says to Telemachus, the son, “Your childhood is over.” She says you have to do this—you have to be a man—with this beautiful and emphatic line: “You cannot go on lingering in your childhood.” And it’s always like that, the goddess—generally goddess, not god—announces, you have to go, you have to do this thing. And it’s very onerous for the person who has to do it.
How does your work as an adaptor play out in the rehearsal room?
I’m the director and I’m the writer; those things go hand in hand for me. So when I’m thinking about what episode to use of something that’s multi-episodic, the choice often depends on what parts I have visual ideas for staging—and what will benefit from being staged. I start with no script. I write it bit by bit in the hours off from rehearsal, bring it in and it builds everyday. I’m inspired by the physical capabilities and talents in the cast. I have to make certain major decisions before we start, in terms of sets and costumes, but once we begin on that first day, it’s a kind of free-fall. I’m under the clock; I use a normal rehearsal period of about four weeks.
My process reflects my belief in the unconscious: by putting myself under such pressure, I lose self-consciousness, and I open up to the voice of the text. There’s really not much choice. I have crazy impulses and I don’t have time to get scared or shy or second-guess them. They’re not the polite choices, they’re not even the considered choices often. In a way it’s like, how would we do this in the backyard?
The great Charles Ludlam said that 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. Rather than aiming for the target, you shoot and then you make it.
Jason and Medea: Re-examining the hero myth
By Lila Neugebauer
Jason’s quest for the Golden Fleece is among the oldest of Greek legends. The story’s archetypal simplicity is strikingly familiar: a hero is sent to retrieve an extraordinary prize and must perform seemingly impossible feats to obtain it. For the leading scholar of myth, Joseph Campbell, Jason epitomizes the hero figure at the core of all mythology. Campbell posits that all myths are in fact “hero myths,” which conform to the same underlying pattern of “separation-initiation-return,” a magnified rite of passage he calls the “monomyth”:
A hero ventures forth from the world of the common day into a region of supernatural wonder: fabulous forces are there encountered and a decisive victory is won: the hero comes back from this mysterious adventure with the power to bestow boons on his fellow man.
Campbell’s hero can be a prince, a warrior, a saint or a god; the “boon” he brings back may be a material prize, a bride or wisdom. Prometheus retrieves fire from the heavens for mankind; Jason circumvents the dragon and obtains the golden fleece; Aeneas voyages into the underworld and communes with his deceased father. In all of these journeys, Campbell identifies a symbolic quest for identity. Many hero myths are figured as a return to the father—Jason’s reunion is symbolic: he returns to assume his father’s rightful throne. Campbell reads this search as, fundamentally, the search for the self.
The motif is common in fairy tales—the hero usually a prince, the prize often a bride. The Argo’s voyage closely resembles the body of folklore in which a prince secures his prize with the help of companions possessing magical talents. An oft-cited parallel is the Brothers Grimm tale The Six Servants, in which a prince succeeds in marrying a beautiful maiden whose witch-mother seeks to deter suitors with a series of treacherous challenges. En route to his future bride, the prince is joined by six men, each possessing a unique physical attribute that proves vital to surmounting the six obstacles the witch presents.
The Medea-Aeetes-Jason story belongs to yet another, even more pervasive folk motif common to tales around the world: a man facing a series of trials in a foreign kingdom is aided by the daughter of his hostile host, who thereafter abandons her own family and kingdom to elope with him. The Norse Mastermaid and Gaelic Battle of the Birds feature the same theme. Within the Greco-Roman tradition, Hippodamia sabotages her own father’s chariot and causes his death so that her future husband can win the race; Ariadne famously arms Theseus to defeat the minotaur, fleeing her kingdom thereafter to marry him.
Medea’s role in the legend makes a near irony of the original folk motif of happy helpers: her extraordinary magic renders the talents of the Argonauts inconsequential. It is Medea’s sorcery alone that enables Jason to obtain the fleece, her power that earns him his heroic status. Jason’s success lies in winning Medea’s love; his heroic virtues are seemingly charm and good looks. He is, after all, the first of many ordinary men to play the hero’s part in western literature.
This chapter in Medea’s story remains unknown to many, even those who are well-versed in classical mythology. She is more widely recognized as Euripides’ “barbarous monster,” the mother who commits the unimaginable, the murder of her own two sons. Abandoned by Jason so that can he obtain a throne by marrying a Greek princess, Medea is left alone and homeless in a foreign land; she has betrayed and abandoned her family and kingdom for Jason’s survival and glory. It is easy to forget that she was a young girl who fell in love under the gods’ hands, who was promised marriage, family and home. Apollonious’ epic Argonautika, from the third century BC, depicts a strikingly complex psychological portrait of a young girl alone in the depths of her native woods, agonizing over the betrayal she fears she will commit, but sick and chilled with the pangs of first love. Jason and Medea’s romance is recognized as the first love story of the western tradition.
Yet how does Medea’s critical role in Jason’s “decisive victory” fit into Campbell’s monomyth? She is not Jason’s bridal “boon”; the fleece is his prize. While his quest entails a return to the father, it necessitates Medea’s betrayal and abandonment of hers. A princess’s desertion of her family seemingly supports the regenerative logic of marriage and procreation; the folk motif justifies the break young must make from old in our cultural order. But Jason readily discards Medea for a potential throne—for the social role and status he journeyed to obtain. If that betrayal is a necessary step in Jason’s heroic initiation into manhood, what conception of heroism does this story espouse?
Despite our hero’s casual cruelty, his epic voyage continues to captivate the western imagination. Nathaniel Hawthorne introduced American children to the legend in his Tanglewood Tales (1851), and Charles Kingsley did the same for the British with his collection, Heroes (1855). This nineteenth-century trend of adapting the tale for young people has made the story a mainstay of children’s books since. Myths, like fairy tales and fables, function not only as entertainment, but also as pedagogy. We read them to our children in the hopes that they will prove instructive: stray from the path and a nasty wolf might eat you up; a candy house may look inviting, but greediness could get you boiled by a witch. They are primers, guidebooks for the roles and responsibilities we assume when we enter the adult world; their conventions become encoded in our everyday lives, in the social customs through which we build our relationships to one another. Campbell tells us these stories help us learn how to live. They also, of course, reveal a great deal about how we already do live.
A trailer for Berkeley Rep’s production of Argonautika, created and directed by Mary Zimmerman.