Kelli O'Hara and Kristin Chenoweth

Mary Zimmerman's "Argonautika" is ship-shape for a longer voyage after its debut at Chicago's Lookingglass a year ago.

Conjuring Jason and the Argonauts’ epic travels in a clever mix of classical fidelity, contemporary flourishes and her usual ingenious yet fairly low-tech stagecraft, Mary Zimmerman’s “Argonautika” is ship-shape for a longer voyage after its debut at Chicago’s Lookingglass a year ago. Text and design team haven’t changed, but this version has a mostly new cast and has been reworked for larger, proscenium-stage venues. After its Berkeley Rep kickoff, production moves on to Princeton, D.C. and possibly beyond in early 2008.

The lengthy (85 minutes) but delightful first act springs all manner of theatrical tricks — puppetry, miniatures, acrobatics, mime — in a robust rendition of Jason’s (Jake Suffian) bedeviled path to the Golden Fleece. His crew of fellow heroes introduce themselves in rapping, battle-style, pounding on percussion as accompaniment; they clamber up ropes, fly via cable, and fight off monsters and over-attentive maidens alike.

They are helped past hazards by the interventions of warrior goddess Athena (an amusingly butch Sofia Jean Gomez) and more fickle Hera (Christa Scott-Reed), who has a conflicting dislike for strong but dirt-dumb Hercules (Soren Oliver), since he’s one of her cheating husband Zeus’ many half-mortal bastards.

After all the rich humor, adventure and imagination before it, the shorter second act drags a bit as it narrows focus to Jason and Medea (Atley Loughridge), the young princess whose lovesickness — courtesy of Aphrodite (Tessa Klein) — he must exploit to actually steal the Fleece from her father, power-mad King Aietes (Oliver again).

As is well known, this romance goes downhill fast, to murderous final results that Zimmerman labors to interpret sympathetically, using Hera and Athena as her mouthpieces. (The point is already obvious enough, since we’ve seen how Jason manipulates his bride.)

The high spirits of “Argonautika’s” start shift uneasily into this darker mode, and, while the whole ensemble is winning, Suffian’s dashing but rather bland Jason and Loughridge’s ingenue-victim can’t quite sustain its dramatic burden alone. It’s not their fault — the horrors Medea eventually commits just can’t follow a rollicking good time without losing considerable impact.

Nonetheless, “Argonautika” remains a winning evening of insightful, incisive storytelling and theatrical invention.

Argonautika

Berkeley Rep Roda Theater, Berkeley, Calif.; 650 seats; $69 top

Production

A Berkeley Repertory Theater presentation, in association with Shakespeare Theater Company, McCarter Theater Center and Lookingglass Theater Company, of a play in two acts adapted and directed by Mary Zimmerman, based on texts by Gaius Valerius Faccus (translated by David R. Slavitt) and Apollonius Rhodius (translated by Peter Green).

Creative

Set, Daniel Ostling; costumes, Ana Kuzmanic; lighting, John Culbert; original music and sound, Andre Pluess, Ben Sussman; puppets, Michael Montenegro; production stage manager, Cynthia Cahill. Opened, reviewed Nov. 7, 2007. Running time: 2 HOURS, 45 MIN.

Cast

With: Jake Suffian, Christa Scott-Reed, Sofia Jean Gomez, Allen Gilmore, Jesse J. Perez, Andy Murray, Chris Kipiniak, Casey Jackson, Soren Oliver, Justin Blanchard, Ronete Levenson, Paul Oakley Stovall, Tessa Klein, Atley Loughridge.
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