Argonautika | Lookingglass Theatre Company

The Pirate Queen | Cadillac Palace Theatre

WHEN Through 12/23: Tue 6:30 PM, Wed 7:30 PM, Thu 6:30 PM, Fri 7 PM, Sat 3 and 8 PM, Sun 3 PM

WHERE Lookingglass Theatre Company, 821 N. Michigan

PRICE $30-$58

INFO 312-337-0665

The Pirate Queen

WHEN Through 11/26: Tue 7:30 PM, Wed 2 and 7:30 PM, Thu 7:30 PM, Fri 8 PM, Sat 2 and 8 PM, Sun 2 PM

WHERE Cadillac Palace Theatre, 151 W. Randolph

PRICE $28-$85

INFO 312-902-1400

By Albert Williams

A disheveled young man, Jason, shuffles to the edge of the world wearing only one sandal; lovestruck virgin Medea runs around in a bloodstained dress, Eros’s arrow sticking out of her chest. When the couple finally couples, their lovemaking is illuminated by golden glitter dropped from heaven. Sideline commentary is provided by two goddesses: fashionable matron Hera, whose gown sprouts wings when she’s angry, and spear-wielding warrior Athena.

This is the world of Argonautika, writer-director Mary Zimmerman’s engrossing retelling of the saga of Jason and the Argonauts. Zimmerman and Lookingglass Theatre made a big splash in 1990 with their version of Homer’s Odyssey, and eight years later they turned the stage of the Ivanhoe Theater into a wading pool to retell Ovid’s Metamorphoses. They plunge into the waters of Greek myth again with this evening of theatrical poetry. The plot is ancient, but the theme is eternal: the human urge to explore uncharted worlds, to seek treasure and territory, to spread our civilization and our seed despite danger and disaster. Jason’s saga resonates with other classic fantasy adventures: Galahad’s quest for the Holy Grail, Dorothy’s for the wicked witch’s broom. It also calls to mind Alexander the Great and Leif Eriksson, Christopher Columbus and the Crusaders, as well as more recent examples of nations’ clumsy efforts to impose their religious beliefs and political will on others.

The story of Jason and the Argonauts is probably best known from children’s books and Hollywood films. These generally skim over the dark details of the bloody legend, in which “heroic” achievements illustrate the futility of human ambition. Zimmerman’s script is based on two epic poems, one penned in the third century BC by Apollonius of Rhodes, the other by first-century Roman poet Gaius Valerius Flaccus. She’s added a great deal of her own material, written in a lean but lyrical style that meshes perfectly with the ancient texts, melding cool whimsy with somber compassion.

Jason, rightful heir to the kingdom of Iolcus, is commanded by his uncle, the usurper Pelias, to travel to far-off Colchis (in modern Georgia) and steal the Golden Fleece of a flying ram slaughtered by the king of Colchis, its pelt hung from a tree as a warning to invaders. Jason sets sail on the Argo accompanied by the greatest group of heroes this side of DC Comics, among them strong man Hercules and his beloved boy companion, Hylas; the boxer Pollux and his twin brother, Castor; and the famed runner Atalanta, the crew’s only female member. Their voyage includes a layover on an island populated by women who’ve murdered their fickle husbands, a battle with a sea monster, and a face-off with the winged Harpies, who plague the blind prophet Phineas by stealing his food. (Ironically, this torment is what keeps Phineas alive–when the Harpies are driven away, he dies.) Reaching Colchis, Jason claims the fleece through cunning as much as courage with the help of the princess-witch Medea. He marries but later dumps her, with disastrous consequences. “Through her he will lose everything he had sought,” scholar Dean A. Miller writes in The Epic Hero, “and be finally reduced to impotence and a blackened name: the questing hero becomes the feeble and shameful pawn.”

Even with this bleak message, Argonautika celebrates the sheer pleasure of theatrical make-believe. Instead of dazzling special effects, Zimmerman and her design team offer simple, stylized images. Daniel Ostling’s set, suggestively lit by John Culbert, at first seems a plain wooden platform running down the middle of the theater. Gradually a network of catwalks, ladders, doorways, and trapdoors is revealed, representing not only the Argo’s deck but the entrance to Hades, a spring inhabited by the nymph who lures Hylas to his doom, and a dark grove where an unsleeping dragon guards the Golden Fleece.

Especially crucial are Michael Montenegro’s expressive rod puppets and marionettes, which portray such creatures as the flying ram and the supernatural soldiers that spring up where a serpent’s teeth have been planted–here depicted as miniature versions of the skeleton warriors created by stop-motion animator Ray Harryhausen for the 1963 film Jason and the Argonauts. Perhaps most potent is the puppet of a helpless baby, its strings manipulated by actors in the rafters. When Pelias’s minions murder the child, the strings are simply cut and the infant’s instinctive motions suddenly cease–as shocking as any realistic depiction onstage could possibly be.

The 14 actors don and doff Ana Kuzmanic’s archaic yet contemporary costumes to play multiple roles. Particularly striking are Ryan Artzberger as a likable but ineffectual Jason, Atley Loughridge as manically passionate Medea, Glenn Fleshler as a buffoonish yet deeply emotional Hercules, Lisa Tejero as a peevish Hera, and Mariann Mayberry as a severe yet sympathetic Athena, who narrates the story. When Athena “flies,” she’s simply lifted and carried by another actor; when Jason yokes a pair of fire-breathing bulls to sow the serpent’s teeth, they’re played by bare-chested actor-athletes in horned helmets.

Though Zimmerman treats the sometimes outlandish tale as a game of “let’s pretend,” she also captures the somber subtext, in which Jason’s quest symbolizes our efforts to explore the world within as well as around us, to understand why we strive and suffer. Patterns of behavior may shift like the constellations, which once guided the Argonauts and now guide astronauts. But human nature remains constant. “O these glorious missions of men,” Zimmerman writes. “They start out so well, so full of hope and noble intent–teach the foreigner a lesson, destroy the tyrant, become a man, defend the nation….They all end up like this in the end.”

Compared to the intimate Argonautika, the new Broadway-bound musical The Pirate Queen is nearly comical in its excess. Directed by Zimmerman’s mentor Frank Galati, it’s almost justified by its lavish costumes and beautiful sets. But the narrative is dramatically flat, and the score–by Claude-Michel Schonberg, composer of Les Miserables and Miss Saigon–is bombastic and banal.

Schonberg and coauthors Alain Boublil and John Dempsey have mined Morgan Llywelyn’s novel Grania: She-King of the Irish Seas for the tale of 16th-century rebel leader Grace O’Malley, who resisted English invaders and pleaded the case for Irish autonomy in a private audience with Queen Elizabeth I. But the prosaic libretto, with its formulaic love triangle and two-dimensional characters, squanders the story’s potential. Grania (powerhouse belter Stephanie J. Block) is feisty, her lover staunchly faithful, her husband sexist and boorish, and her English nemesis arrogant and epicene. Elizabeth is the only character to display even a hint of complexity, but she and Grania don’t meet for two and a half hours–and when they do, they retreat behind a screen. Maybe it’s just as well, given Linda Balgord’s painful, wobbly soprano as the queen.

John McColgan, director of Riverdance, is this show’s artistic director, and the production is suffused with gorgeous Gaelic touches: Carol Leavy Joyce’s boisterous step dances, designer Eugene Lee’s evocative re-creations of Ireland’s rocky coast and stony castles, the delicate, haunting piping that adds needed delicacy to Julian Kelly’s lush, loud orchestrations. But these only underscore the emptiness of the rest of the endeavor. The misleading title (perhaps an attempt to cash in on the popularity of Disney’s Pirates of the Caribbean movies) promises a rousing, romantic sea adventure, but The Pirate Queen remains landlocked.