Jason and the Argonauts get the Lookingglass treatment with Mary Zimmerman's hotly anticipated Argonautika.
Like Ralph Kramden yelling up the fire escape to Ed Norton, director Mary Zimmerman hollers up a 17-foot pole leading to the catwalk of Lookingglass Theatre. Zimmerman is suggesting to an actor how to make her entrance—something the performer will be trying for the first time.
“My favorite would be if you could slide down headfirst!” Zimmerman shouts.
“Mary,” a pert ingenue’s voice answers, “sometimes I think you don’t like me.”
It’s two weeks before Argonautika, Zimmerman’s epic new adaptation of the adventures of Jason and the Argonauts, begins previews. And if it sounds like Zimmerman’s cast is game for whatever, it’s because it has to be: The auteur-director doesn’t start writing her scripts until the night before rehearsal.
Consequently, Zimmerman’s famously flowing, spectacularly opulent performance pieces, like the much-produced Secret in the Wings and the Tony Award–winning Metamorphoses, require actors who can think on their feet. Using a combination of straight third-person narration and lyrically poetic dialogue, Zimmerman incorporates simple but evocative visuals—vibrant bolts of fabric, large pools of water—to bring epic myths to life on what amounts to a living canvas.
“It takes brave and flexible and passionate people to go with what you throw at them that morning,” Zimmerman says of the actors with whom she regularly works. And sometimes, what she throws at them is herself. Literally.“You need to spin faster,” she tells Atley Loughridge, the actor who has just made her virgin voyage down the pole. Loughridge is now in the arms of cast member (and Lookingglass artistic director) David Catlin. He’s spinning her around, but apparently not fast enough.
“It needs to be faster and freer,” Zimmerman says. And then, “Ready Catlin?” Suddenly Zimmerman runs and jumps into Catlin’s arms, and the expressionless actor, like a bored outfielder at batting practice, catches her without so much as blinking and twirls her around at the speed she’d hoping for.
Zimmerman and Catlin are over 40 and, arguably, past leaping and catching age. But the key to their partnership is that she doesn’t wait for a response between “Ready Catlin?” and jumping into the air.Consider the leap that happens with each Zimmerman adaptation. Starting the rehearsal process with reams of research but no official script, she writes nightly, often going to bed around 9pm, waking up at two in the morning and composing until 6pm. The highly specific production style—fresh material daily—is one of the reasons why there are so many familiar faces on both the cast list and the design team; at this point in her career, Zimmerman is careful to surround herself with people who have helped build her stage vocabulary.
“There are conversations about process we don’t have to have now because we had them ten years ago,” Zimmerman says.
Famous for her ravenous appetite for literature, Zimmerman is culling this adaptation from two different versions of The Argonautika by scholars Peter Green and David R. Slavitt. The story of warrior Jason’s (Zimmerman regular Ryan Artzburger) search for the Golden Fleece offers mythology geeks a buffet of supporting Greco-Roman characters; Hercules and Medea figure into Argonautika, as do the gods of Mount Olympus.
“There’s something satisfying about epic storytelling,” says Zimmerman, who maintains faith in the attention spans of Digital Age consumers. “Lord of the Rings and the Harry Potter books wouldn’t exist if we didn’t have patience for, and a hunger for, long stories.”
Golden light saturates the set as lighting designer John Culbert experiments with a few filters, projecting color and shadow onto actors in street clothes as they run a sailing sequence on Dan Ostling’s lacquered wooden set. As the Argonaut crew rows its bamboo sticks in imaginary water on either side of the stage, a large dog makes its way onto the set and starts sniffing the actors. Nobody flinches.
Zimmerman cackles as she watches her pooch Beary—a regular presence in rehearsals—mingle on the stage. As Athena narrates the action, the actor playing her, Mariann Mayberry, loses her place for a moment, then resumes as if there were no dog in sight.
A dog on the set, after all, is a regular occurrence. As Zimmerman puts it, among longtime collaborators, “Day one of rehearsal is actually day one of year 20 of rehearsal.”
Argonautika is in previews at Lookingglass Theatre.