With her trademark focus on the wisdom of mythology, auteur director Mary Zimmerman adapts the sprawling journey of Jason and the Argonauts into a spare, lucid, elegant show with significant potential for an afterlife of its own. Depicting mythical events using puppetry and other simple, theatrical flourishes, “Argonautika” gracefully flows from episode to episode with injections of humor and a philosophical perspective. Throughout, the show evokes a feeling of sympathy for the plight of humanity, which from this “first voyage of the world” was doomed to mix heroic achievements with an abundance of sorrow.
With great skill for concise storytelling, Zimmerman condenses this epic into 2½ hours — quite an achievement, although the result can still use some tightening; the rich material retains its many layers of meaning and complex emotions, as well as its multitude of fantastical creatures. The show debuts at the Lookingglass in Chicago, the same company that gave birth to Zimmerman’s “Metamorphoses,” which did the regional rounds before succeeding on Broadway.
Such is Zimmerman’s imagination, and comfort level with frequent set designer Daniel Ostling, that the plank wood set, which splits the audience in two, becomes choppy seas with little more than the use of undulating fabric, a flash of lightning and the sound of thunder. Just as efficiently, with a few ropes hoisted up and oars in hand, the busy and extremely talented ensemble instantly transform the space into the famed ship Argo.
Designer Michael Montenegro’s puppets provide assistance whenever needed, including filling in the backstory of the golden fleece so that paranoid King Pelias (Allen Gilmore) can send Jason (Ryan Artzberger) in search of it.
With the aid of a rhythmic roll call, Zimmerman introduces the varied crew who would become the Argonauts, including Hercules — stand-out performer Glenn Fleshler — who’s strong as iron and dumb as a door knob. It should tell enough about this show — so simple, but never oversimplified — that Hercules at first seems like pure comic relief but ends up with a heartbreaking scene of his own, as his weeks-long search for his lost lover is depicted by having him run a lap or two around the upper level of the theater.
Zimmerman tells the story from the panoramic perspective of goddesses Athena (a strong, grounded Mariann Mayberry) and Hera (a highly entertaining Lisa Tejero), who narrate the tale as well as involve themselves in it. They also provide occasional interpretation and make sure to fill us in on the many mythic threads to which this show only has time to allude.
First act conjures the great adventures of the Argonauts, among them battles with a sea monster, a giant boxer and harpies (birds with human-like faces). The second focuses intensely on the relationship between Jason and the young Medea (Atley Loughridge), a character who so fascinates Zimmerman that she comes to dominate the last part of the show.
Medea is usually portrayed as a monster — she will later, as depicted in the Euripides play, kill her children as revenge for Jason’s betrayal of her — but “Argonautika” presents her in an incredibly sympathetic light. This Medea is such a victim of love that the wound from Eros’ arrow continues to bleed, so that her white dress gradually turns to red.
Zimmerman leaves us with two fundamental thematic impressions, both in their own way purposefully contradictory. The first is about love — both “the bane of all mankind” and “all that we know of heaven on this Earth.” The second is about human hubris. Civilizations set out on “adventures,” always thinking they’re one conquest away from ridding the world of the last tyrant and creating utopia (sound familiar?). But this story reminds us that such efforts have a nasty habit of not turning out as expected.
As all myths do, this material deals with dark stuff, but somehow, in Zimmerman’s hands, it comes off feeling oddly comforting, even gentle, giving this show the same type of potential appeal — to both sophisticated and mainstream audiences — as “Metamorphoses.”
The familiarity of the story, in part because of the popular 1963 film, only makes this show more likely to live on past this initial incarnation. While it isn’t perfect, it’s so remarkably ambitious, enjoyable and meaningful overall that pointing out small weaknesses would be pointless.