By May S. Ruiz
Pasadenans have until May 5 to catch A Noise Within’s (ANW) spectacular production of ‘Argonautika,’ before it sails into the sunset. An epic theatrical journey by Tony Award-winning director and playwright Mary Zimmerman, it made its world premiere in 2006 at Chicago’s Lookingglass Theatre.
Directed by ANW’s Producing Artistic Director Julia Rodriguez-Elliott, ‘Argonautika’ is a modern take on the classic Greek myth ‘The Voyage of Jason and the Argonauts’ which tells about his quest for the Golden Fleece. It features an ensemble of multi-talented actors led by Ty Mayberry as Jason, Trisha Miller as Athena, Veralyn Jones as Hera, and many others.
In this story, the Greek goddesses Athena and Hera are collaborators in their common goal to help Jason. Miller and Jones share scenes for the better part of the show and have such a wonderful time. On a recent mid-morning, they chat with us about this production, their roles, and how proud they are to be on the show.
As if proving just how in sync they are, Miller and Jones exclaim at the same time, “We had never been on stage together before now, we met at the audition.”
“Veralyn and I bonded from day one, which was great because so much of the challenge of the show was trying to figure out who we are in this mix,” begins Miller. “There’s such an interesting order in a show like this where there are immortal goddesses and semi-gods. And then there are the Argonauts. The first couple of weeks of rehearsals we had so many conversations about what exactly does it mean to be a goddess.”
The interaction between Miller and Jones on stage is such a delight to watch as they seem like two friends who are comfortable with each other. And, as in true relationships, there are bound to be some disagreements. There’s one scene when the displeasure on Athena’s face is utterly hilarious to behold.
“Our characters have little spats throughout the show because we have completely different ways of approaching the problem,” elucidates Miller. “Athena is very methodical, she’s very much into strategy and she’s an anti-romantic. So when Hera comes up with the idea to go to Aphrodite, Athena thinks ‘That’s the last person I want to see at this point.’ Hera uses love to get Medea to go along with their plan, and Athena’s thinking ‘Oh this is going to be a terrible idea.’ I loved showing not real anger but playful exasperation.”
Jones pipes in, “Exactly! Like you say, Athena’s all methodical. And I think Hera is all emotion, she’s very vengeful. That’s such an amusing dynamic.”
Both Jones and Miller credit Rodriguez-Elliott for this show’s unique vision.
“In the published version of the script, Mary Zimmerman wrote that she struggled whether or not to put how she created all these monsters in the first production because she said so much of the fun of theatre is problem-solving and figuring things out,” Miller explains. “I think this was the perfect show for Julia because what she does best, I think, is coming up with a lot of inventive design and movement. And that’s the magic of this show!”
“It’s interesting, you said that,” observes Jones. “When I first read the script, I wondered how Julia was envisioning how everything that’s in the script was going to materialize on the stage. Then there are also moments when we appear some place by flying in. Not having seen the production before, I tried finding photographs but there wasn’t that much out there. So, as an actor, you just have to wait and trust that the director has a vision, and she did. Not being in her head, you don’t know initially how all this is going to happen. But as we started rehearsing, and day after day, it was very clear for her. She just kind of put it out there and somehow we got it; it all came together.
“They did a lot of pre-production work; I think she said they had been working on this for five months prior to rehearsals. She had all hands on deck for this show. It’s a huge production! People told me when they saw it they had no idea they were coming in to see all the acrobats and gymnasts – someone falling from the sky and all that. There’s even a dragon, and I’m always so charmed by that dragon.”
Miller discloses, “Julia mentioned before that Mary Zimmerman’s work has a very strong directorial DNA to it in how she writes and uses her actors. I had done her ‘Metamorphoses’ before at a theatre in Dallas and it has the same sort of style to it. I joked to Julia one time that I’ve been chasing the Mary Zimmerman dragon ever since because I had so much fun doing that production. There’s so much humanity and camaraderie in her work too. This story is so much about determination and that meshes with what we all love about doing theater in the first place.”
“… Being able to collaborate in ensemble work,” interjects Jones. “We’re part of something bigger than life. That’s what I love about this show – the idea that we’re all in this to start the process and finish it. Everyone’s in sync; that’s true ensemble work. I see those Argonauts out there and how they throw their bodies into what they’re doing. I’m in total awe of the production I’m in, which I find exciting.”
“You’re absolutely right,” concurs Miller. “There are moments when there’s such precision in this show so that, like you said, if any movement is off, it takes so much focus from everybody. There’s one point in the show right when the ship launches and I’m up on the bridge with all the Argonauts and they start rowing … there’s all this movement and choreography that’s so precise. People are jumping down from the bridge and climbing up and down ladders, it’s to the second – you have to be precise. And it’s really, really difficult, but when it all comes together there’s no greater feeling in the world.”
“The scope of this production is bigger,” Miller claims. “I didn’t see the original ‘Argonautika’ but I do know that they didn’t use silks. The sea monster was completely different – I think it was just fabric and two eyeballs. I believe Mary Zimmerman only had a month to write and put it together, which is how she usually works. I think the benefit of us having more time is that Julia was able to find and use all the talent she needed to realize her vision. She has a cast that includes Marc (Leclerc), who’s actually a stuntman and can come down from the rafters, Cassandra (Marie Murphy) who can sing and act while she’s hanging upside down from a silk rope, and Richy (Storrs) who can play every instrument you hand him. She brought in a movement coach, Stephanie Shroyer, and Ken (Merckx, Jr.) who’s the fight choreographer.”
“This piece is really made for ANW in terms of how they want to utilize their physical space on and off the stage,” Jones supplies. “This is the big type of ensemble work they like to do; although this is far more ambitious than anything I’ve seen them do. That they have two other shows in repertory just makes it all the more incredible.
“It’s crazy backstage. There’s as much going on there as on stage. We only have three crew members and they do so much – running to get us what we need, move props and sets. They’re also the dragon puppeteers and they have to light the lanterns. They are multi-tasking in a big, big way.”
Asked if Rodriguez-Elliott gave specific directions in what she wanted to see from each character, Jones responds, “You, as the actor, have to come in with the knowledge about the character and bring that to her so she can direct you. She clarified that Hera is a goddess and that she’s the queen of heaven. So my task is to figure out how to play that physically and emotionally in world of this play. For me, the character unfolds itself as I go along. What I learn about the character informs me how to perform it for the audience.”
“For me, Athena has such a strong point of view about how she approaches things,” answers Miller. “She wants to think things through before making a decision, which is completely different from Hera’s. That’s a fun dynamic to have. But also, it was really helpful for this show knowing what our costumes were going to be like from the beginning. On the first day of rehearsal, our costume designer Jenny (Foldenauer) gave a presentation so we knew what we were going to be wearing. All the armor that Athena’s wearing gives the feeling that she’s powerful but, at the same time, it also restricts movement. So, for me, a lot of that was finding economy of movement and stillness. I think that also reflects who Athena is, someone with an intense focus. Part of my rehearsal process is just paring down my action and making everything purposeful and well thought-out.”
As to what they want the audience to feel when they leave the theatre, Jones declares, “Hera has a sense of who she is. Right or wrong, she goes after what she wants. I want women in the audience to be empowered – to know that she has the ability to take her destiny in her own hands. I’d love for women to feel they could rule – that they could take their own power and do with it what they will. I’d love for them to have that sense of ownership of purpose in their physical and emotional power. Hopefully, it’s directed in the right way.”
To which, Miller says, “That’s a good answer and it’s true. All three of us here are actually parents to daughters and that’s so much more important for me now – to play strong female characters for young women to emulate.
“Let me add that our dramaturge Miranda came in to talk to us about Greek mythology and the characters and what she found in this play that was important ,‘The whole play is about the humanity, the dogged determination, and the camaraderie within this voyage, and community to take care of each other.’ That’s so much what I hope people leave with. And I think the last scene of the play’s so beautiful where the Argonauts become the stars and constellations. They went on this great journey that they were so uncertain of, but they did it. They pulled together through sheer will, camaraderie, and determination. They were able to take control of their destiny and they’re still watching over us. I’m so proud of this show and it’s thrilling to be part of it.”
This could very well be ANW’s most extravagant production yet – complete with an actor dropping down from the rafters, another one singing as she hangs upside down from a silk rope, an unexpectedly likeable dragon, and a ferocious sea monster. It is a feat of inventiveness and creativity that is sure to entertain and please an audience used to lavish sets. That ‘Argonautika’ also imparts a message of empowerment for all women only makes it a show no one would want to miss!