The object of Jason and the Argonauts’ mythological quest for the Golden Fleece is entirely secondary to the fabulous characters encountered throughout their journey: nymphs, six-armed giants, bronze-beaked birds, sirens, and of course Jason’s wife, the sorceress Medea, best known down the centuries as murderess of her children. But the Medea in Mary Zimmerman’s provocative adaptation “Argonautika: The Voyage of Jason and the Argonauts” is less monstrous than manipulated.
“This is Medea when she first falls in love, and we see the way she’s taken advantage of,” actress Angela Gulner recently observed. Gulner portrays Medea in A Noise Within’s current production of “Argonautika,” which runs through May 5. The goddesses Athena and Hera, played by Trisha Miller and Veralyn Jones, respectively, act as guides and narrators, providing sufficient context that viewers won’t need to bone up on Greek mythology to understand the plot.
“It’s generally faithful to the tale of Jason and the Argonauts and the quest for the fleece and the restoration of the family throne,” says director Julia Rodriguez-Elliott, who was drawn to Zimmerman’s enlightened feminine perspective on the original tale of betrayal, greed, passion and revenge. Medea may be a victim of love and meddling gods, she says, but Athena and Hera’s empathetic global view informs the play.
Like most of Zimmerman’s work, “Argonautika” explores themes of longing and transformation. According to Rodriguez-Elliott, its fantastical nature “forces you to get in touch with that childlike ability to use our imaginations. We lose that a little as adults.”
The logistical demands of translating an ancient sea voyage and mythic creatures to the modern stage are considerable — particularly during the first half, when Jason and his crew set sail on the excursion that virtually defined the epic adventure archetype that has since grounded countless novels, superhero movies and comic strips. Actor Ty Mayberry, who estimates he’s put on “12 pounds of muscle” for the very physical role of Jason, says he beelined to the gym the night he was hired because he knew he needed to get in shape before facing down flying gods and dragons.
“[At] our daily check-in in the dressing room, all the guys check in about how they’re feeling and what’s sore and what’s hurting,” he jokes. In addition to learning rope climbing, lifting and dancing skills, they do a full pre-show stretching session to warm up for fights — and rowing.
“After a while even fake rowing can wear you out,” he says, laughing. “Nothing like doing a Mary Zimmerman play for five weeks to get you in shape.”
More seriously, he says he imagines people telling stories of these mythic characters centuries ago as a way to “somehow explain the uncertainty of life by the fact that the gods just tend to meddle at times and sometimes the gods get it wrong.”
“I love that kind of idea, and that kind of feeling,” he says. “I think we’re all looking for our kind of whys — ‘Why does this happen?’ People turn to religion, some turn to meditation, whatever it is. When I read the source material of why this poem was written in the first place, why these poems are told in the way that they’re told — which can be very violent and very brutal; they can have very high highs and very low lows — in looking up at the stars and the stars explaining it, I can see why they would say that this is the only explanation for the uncertainty of life, is that the gods are meddling. The end of the play, beautifully written, is about looking up at the stars, and you get this feeling you are part of something much larger and it takes you out of yourself a little bit. I’ve been trying as I get older more and more to look at the larger picture and get out of myself more. This play does that. I think these myths do that, and these kinds of legends and tales make us feel we are part of something much larger. I think there’s some comfort in that.”
Love and loss rotate like a helix through the play. Its more intimate second half humanizes Medea, and reveals a funnier, more tender side to mythic strongman Hercules (played by actor Frederick Stuart), whose loss of Hylas (played by Richy Storrs) Rodriguez-Elliott calls “one of the great romances of the story besides Medea and Jason.” She says the overall “futility of war and the conquest mission” should also resonate with audiences, especially now.
“This idea that we as a species never give up the notion that we can seek out an adventure and go on the next quest, the world of the last tyrant — in a way ‘Argonautika’ is a cautionary tale in that we are reminded oftentimes these efforts turn out not in the way we expect. So in that way it’s a very relevant and human story about hubris. And gosh, turn on the news,” Rodriguez-Elliott says with a rueful laugh. “It never seems to go away.”
“Argonautika” at A Noise Within, 3352 E. Foothill Blvd., Pasadena, running through May 5; $25-$91. Info: (626) 356-3100. anoisewithin.org/play/argonautika