“Argonautika” proves it is just as much a dance as it is theatre. A Noise Within’s production, directed by Julia Rodriguez-Elliott, is a virtuosic feat that tells the Greek myth of Jason and the Argonauts through the narration of Athena. The ensemble of 17 actors participates in an intricate dance with Frederica Nascimento’s scenic design to turn Jason’s voyage to obtain the golden fleece for King Pelias into a storybook flowing through time and territories on stage, drawing hearts and eyes to the Argonauts.
The dance begins with water. The first moment of the adapted play by Mary Zimmerman shows Jason (Ty Mayberry) trudging through rough waters to help a disguised Hera (Veralyn Jones) get out of trouble. Movement director Stephanie Shroyer worked with Rodriguez-Elliott to create an illusion that could only be achieved with specific movement. A large number of the ensemble rushes in with silk sheets thrown across the stage, moving it in unison. From subtle movements like this to choreographed boxing matches and puppets, the dance between actors, props and the stage is a well-timed performance of its own.
Nascimento’s scenic design turns a blank stage into a ship in a matter of seconds. Ropes fall from the ceiling and the Argonauts run in, latching loops here and there in a choreographed dance the ends with them rowing a ship. They ease through transitions with trap doors, hooks and versatile platforms that allude to new worlds they encounter on their voyage. The marriage between the set design and Ken Booth’s lighting design helps to turn the page of this story towards the next step of the voyage. The end goal: to obtain the golden fleece and win the girl.
“Argonautika” covers a lot of ground, and so do the actors and designers. When the Women of Lemnos see the Argonauts coming their way, they tell the story of how they lost the men of the island through song and dance. To communicate this separation, Rodriguez-Elliott takes it a step further by covering men and Women of Lemnos in elastic cloth. As they press their bodies and faces into this white cloth, they portray a haunting image of man and woman as they stand like statues. Eventually, the women escape this suffocating mold, but the men are consumed by the cloth and leave without a trace.
Some prop usage varies in success. When Boreas (Michael Uribes) tries to destroy the Argonaut's ship on their way between two boulders, actors display what happens by holding up two rocks and a toy boat center stage. Without this model, the movement of the Argonauts being thrown across the ship wouldn't be as easily understood. However, toy boats have their limits. To show that they were surrounded by other ships, toy boats surround Medea (Angela Gulner) until they escaped. Hera and Athena (Trisha Miller) run on stage, grab the boats and put them to the side. The overuse of these props created a distraction. With the boats still on stage, they still held weight and representation. It's hard to deactivate the prop's metaphor when one is still consumed in the world.
Rodriguez-Elliott makes sure that, although there is plenty of ground to cover in their voyage, not a single moment is forgotten.
“Even though some of the scenes are very short, the challenge is to try to find the humanity in these individuals,” Rodriguez-Elliott said.
Mary Zimmerman’s script, although a well-constructed road map through the world of the play, makes it difficult for the actors to build well-rounded characters. Although humorous, some characters with a large part in the plot are one dimensional. Jason, for example, is the boy who pursued, conquered, loved and lost. He’s a story character, but there’s no connection available for the audience.
Yet true character arcs are visible in the most unsuspecting characters, most notably Hercules and Athena.
When Hylas (Richy Storrs) dies, Hercules (Frederick Stuart) mourns over his lover. The tough guy of the Argonauts is suddenly vulnerable. His typical cockiness is gone and he opens up about his love for Hylas. The scene could have been one-dimensional, but Stuart lets the sorrow into his previously strong character. Miller portrays similar vulnerability in Athena when she looks over Hercules. Instead of turning away like the hot-headed goddess she is, she steps back into the scene to console him.
“Seeing it right in front of her all happen and how much they were in love and how he lost Hylas. I think that really affected her and let empathy come into my character,” Miller said.
"Argonautika" navigates Jason and the Argonauts to the golden fleece through a choreographed duet with the set. Leaping from world to world, they sail on their stage-turned-ship. There is power in each row, propelling them forward into the next step of this dance. Rodriguez-Elliott takes Mary Zimmerman's words and tells a story in a daringly virtuosic way that brings eyes to the edge of the boat and across the sea as character jump and fight in sync with the altering set. It is a storybook on feet with no reading required.
"Argonautika" runs now through May 5th at A Noise Within. Tickets start at $25 and can be purchased here.