PROVO — One of the oldest stories of high adventure, Jason and the Argonauts has a modern twist on stage as Argonautika plays this month at BYU. Fight scenes, monsters, political intrigue, humor, and a love story make Argonautika a show that has something for everyone.
Based on the account of Jason and the Argonauts as recorded by Gaius Valerius Flaccus (translated by David R. Slavitt) and Apollonius Rhodius (translated by Peter Green), Argonautika is an exploration of Greek mythology through the modern lens of playwright Mary Zimmerman‘s imagination. The story follows Jason, a demigod son of Zeus, as he searches for the Golden Fleece. After collecting a team of heroes and warriors to assist him, the group experiences a series of adventures that cements their place in legend.
Dylan Wright, in the lead role of Jason, was completely successful in handling the heightened dialogue and creating a believable character. Wright gave Jason a forceful enough personality to give order to an entire stage full of heroes. I also appreciated how Jason was overly confident from the moment he began his quest, because this character flaw led to hiss inevitable downfall, just as in a classical tragedy. Wright also had excellent romantic chemistry with Olivia Ockey, who played Medea. Ockey and Wright ensured that the romance seemed organic, and not the result of an arrangement by the gods. This made Medea’s decision to betray her father, King Aeëtes, believable. Ockey had two different scenes where she was alone on stage as her character wrestled with deep despair. Most actresses would have difficulty successfully executing such a monologue once; Ockey’s ability to twice elicit genuine pathos from me is impressive.
The most constant presences in Argonautika, though, are Hera (played by Hannah Staley) and Athena (played by Kiersten Zundel). As gods, both characters had a calming presence on stage as they observed events, manipulated the other characters, and generally kept themselves above the rough-and-tumble world of heroes, kings, and monsters. Staley was a archetypal jealous Greek god, mixing omnipotence with Hera’s personality flaws. Though I enjoyed Staley’s entire performance, her two scenes where Hera impersonated other individuals (an old woman and the sorceress Circe) were her finest moments. Rather than creating a new character, Staley instead chose the harder path of creating a multilayered performance, where she played Hera impersonating someone else. But my favorite cast member was Zundel, whose proud and quite forcefulness made her the real driving force behind the story of Jason and the Argonauts. Zundel’s demeanor as a warrior goddess was formidable, and it was easy to see why Hera had difficulty challenging Athena for long. Yet, Zundel showed that beneath Athena’s calm exterior was a real interest in Jason and his comrades, and that almost maternal concern made her decision to meddle with earthly affairs entirely understandable.
Zimmerman is best known for her Broadway hit Metamorphoses, another adaptation of ancient mythology for the stage. Argonautika shows flashes of Zimmerman’s brilliance, but the script is overstuffed. Superfluous characters (such as Atalanta, Castor and Pollux, and Pelias’s son) push the main plot to the side far too often and prevented me from learning more about Jason and Medea. The script contains at least five unnecessary scenes (e.g., the death of Jason’s parents, or the rescue of Andromeda), and some of the remaining scenes drag on for far too long (like King Pelias’s scene, or the denouement). Additionally, Zimmerman’s attempt to imitate the formal dialogue of ancient Greek theatre often was so stilted and formal that it detracted from the action.
That awkward dialogue was the biggest hurdle for the college cast to overcome. Many argonauts had line deliveries that accentuated the clunkiness of the script and distracted from the central adventure story. Another difficulty for some actors was the choice of director Janine Sobeck Knighton to have her cast sometimes act silly in order to make the play more cartoony for children. Thankfully, as the play progressed this annoying tendency lessened. On the other hand, I appreciated Knighton’s staging of the complicated ensemble scenes, which always looked like a natural gathering of people, instead of bodies milling around the stage. Knighton’s smartest directorial choice, though, was to embrace Zimmerman’s modern touches to this ancient story. Whether it was the use of a Gatorade bottle, or the mix of ancient tunics with modern skirts, or Hera eating popcorn as she watches the mortals’ drama, Argonautika never felt remote or inaccessible. As a result, I felt an impulse to liken the story to modern life. The obvious lesson was that even heroes and other great people need divine help regularly—a fitting lesson for this company and its audience.
On top of being a meaningful production, Argonautika is visually appealing. Many of Hanna Cutler and Juliette Lewis‘s costumes were exquisitely detailed; the subtle features on Athena’s tunic, the layers of fur for King Aeëtes (showing that he is distinctly non-Greek), and the spangles in Aphrodite’s dress gave depth to the fictional world of Jason and the Argonauts. The monster puppets (including the Amycus puppet, which appeared previously on the BYU stage in The Gentle Giant) were a fantastical visual asset for the show. Marianne Ohran‘s lighting design was effective in communicating important changes of mood (such as impending danger for the heroes), or adding a mystical touch as the mortals came into contact with the supernatural. But most important for the success of the production was Bradlee Hager’s set design, which was so versatile that it could easily convert into a palace or a boat with few changes. Indeed, the only technical element that didn’t work in every single scene was Taylor Glad and Matthew Kupferer’s sound design. While usually successful, the crackling fire in two scenes sounded more like microphone pops and interference.
Finally, opening night of Argonautika will be memorable for its cast because actor Ian Buckley was hit by a car hours before curtain. Molly Howard and Christine Detweiler stepped in with little notice to fill in for Buckley. Aside from the script in their hands in a few scenes, the replacement was unnoticeable. Buckley is scheduled to return to the show on June 3, but it was gratifying to see the cast pull together because the show must go on.
Billed as a production for young audiences, Argonautika is much too long and complicated for younger children. I believe that children age 12 and up can enjoy it, or a younger child who has a strong interest in mythology and a long attention span. But I appreciate this show as an unvarnished introduction to Greek mythology, complete with flawed heroes, gruesome actions, and spectacular monsters. Most adults will be unfamiliar with many of its characters or the events of the story, which means Argonautika can serve as an educational and entertaining experience for older audiences, too.