I saw Argonautika with Alex on Thursday at the Berkeley Rep. It was quite the visual treat, but I expect no less from Mary Zimmerman. Alex, being Greek, was confused by the Latinization of some of the names (he thinks Pollux should have been Polydefkis or something), and upon further reflection it seemed the naming was inconsistent — Aphrodite, not Venus, but then Hercules, not Herakles. I’m sure others reading this had a similar reaction (Darcy, I’m looking at you).
In the end, however, I was a little unsatisfied by the play — perhaps because the tale is so familiar the tension went out of the storytelling. However, the strength of the play is in how Zimmerman tells the story and brings out parts of the story that resonate with contemporary society. The first act’s main event was Hylas’ death at the spring and Hercules’ madness at losing his lover. Zimmerman makes explicit their relationship and how Hercules really needs Hylas. One of the more powerful moments is Heracles breaking down and crying, holding the pitcher Hylas had before his death, and Hera’s gleeful reaction.
Another thing that Zimmerman did bring out was the way in which Medea’s betrayal of her family is coerced (by the gods and then by Jason, who knowingly takes advantage of her). She is a teenager, and her desire for Jason is like that of a high school crush or obsession. Jason, who is not left off the hook in modern stagings of Euripides’s play, is depicted in Argonautika as a bit more human than his demigod crew. After Eros shoots Medea with his arrow, she appears on stage pierced by it, her white dress becoming more and more blood-soaked in each scene. Her passion is a disease which slowly overwhelms her. This arresting visual image was almost enough to carry the whole play, but it didn’t show up until the second act.
One thing I thought about the next day was how Medea’s impulsive behavior at the beginning of this story and her killing of her own children at the end of the story could be used together as a commentary on our times — in Euripides the Greeks might argue that Jason is the tragic hero and Medea is merely the agent of his undoing, but since contemporary performance puts the focus back on her, we can also ask to what degree society (and by extension the gods) are implicated in her actions? There’s another play lurking in there, somewhere…