Most people think of the story of Jason and the Argonauts as the first word in masculine heroics. Originally set down in writing in the 3rd century B.C. by the Greek poet Apollonius of Rhodes, the legend concerns the Greek prince Jason's eventful voyage on the high seas to seize the Golden Fleece from under the nose of the king of Colchis; and, with the king's smitten daughter, Medea, in tow, his return home to Iolcus to claim his throne. The story reads like a cross between an action movie and a sci-fi flick. Jason and his brothers-in-arms the Argonauts (an A-list of Greek heartthrobs named after their trusty vessel, The Argo) battle sea monsters; escape deadly clashing rocks; bend wild beasts to their will; seduce countless women; and otherwise rape, pillage, and plunder their way to Colchis and back. The testosterone hangs so thickly in the air throughout the tale that it's easy to forget that it all begins with something as banal — and, frankly, silly — as the loss of a shoe.
Jason's cavalier attitude toward his footwear is, of course, a crucial part of the story. A prophesy about a "one-sandaled man" destined to destroy King Pelias is what drives the king to send Jason, who shows up in the doom-laden monarch's kingdom short of a shoe, packing to the other side of the world on the hare-brained pelt-retrieval mission. Other retellings of the myth, such as Ray Harryhausen's classic 1963 screen version, assume that Jason goes sandal shopping at some point before setting sail. But the Tony Award– and MacArthur "Genius" Grant–winning Chicago-based theater director and writer Mary Zimmerman compromises her Greek matinee idol's street cred considerably in Argonautika by forcing him to go mono-sandaled throughout. As a result, it's hard to take him seriously. Whether yoking the fire-breathing oxen of Colchis; scaring off a battalion of screeching, flesh-tearing harpies; or behaving in a studly manner on the all-female island of Lemnos, actor Jake Suffian's Jason becomes less manly with the passing of every swashbuckling act.
The emasculation of heroes and the satirizing of misplaced heroics are at the heart of Zimmerman's thought-provoking though ultimately self-defeating stage adaptation. The man-bashing ranges from poking fun at Jason to lambasting the heroic style of epic poetry through the use of contemporary slang: "Who gives a fuck about the Fleece? Some stinkin' piece of wool." But she goes further than kicking male virility in the nuts. She foregrounds the feminine in what most people think of as a heavily masculine narrative. Unfortunately, the unyielding teleological drive of the plot with its relentless onrush of action-packed events ends up reasserting rather than undermining the testosterone.
Zimmerman's reading of the Jason myth brings out the feminine in imaginative ways. Her conception of the character of Medea is a case in point. People tend to think of Medea as the most psychopathic woman in history. As portrayed by the Greek tragedian Euripides in his 5th-century B.C. play, Medea (which takes place some years after the events depicted in the Golden Fleece story), the character, having been shunned by Jason, goes on a killing spree. She poisons Jason's new wife and then murders her own children. In recent decades, however, feminist critics have reclaimed the character, seeing her as a powerful and misunderstood woman forced against her will to do these unspeakable things. By offering us a glimpse of the character as she's portrayed by Apollonius of Rhodes, Zimmerman presents a view of Medea not as a witch but as a frightened young girl — a pawn employed by the gods to help Jason complete his mission for the Golden Fleece.
From the moment Eros pierces Medea's heart with an arrow in the production, we see the character (emotionally portrayed by Atley Loughridge) wracked with pain. Falling in love with Jason is not easy for her to do. She resists her fate, trying to pull the arrow from her chest. As the play progresses, the arrow remains in Medea's body and her white dress becomes increasingly bloodstained. This visual representation of passion as affliction is the most lurid and unforgettable image in the production.
Throughout Zimmerman's adaptation, which combines Apollonius' text and a version written two hundred years later by the Roman poet Gaius Valerius Flaccus, men are at the mercy of women. Female characters — both mortals and goddesses — run the show. A water nymph lures crewmember Hylas to his death by pulling him into a silver-streamer-festooned watering hole. The women of Lemnos use the Argonauts as sex toys before sending them reeling knock-kneed back to their ship. Goddesses in stunning butterfly-hued gowns inspire awe both in the characters onstage and in the audience not just because they control the fates of men, but because of their ability to navigate the precipitous rake of Daniel Ostling's wooden-ship-inspired set in five-inch platform heels. Even Medea comes across as a potent force. She may not be mistress of her own fate, but she isn't afraid to stand her ground. "Am I your wife now, Jason, or merely a captive on your ship? A handmaid, part of your expedition's loot?" she cajoles. "Remember, Jason, we've taken our vows, and I trust them. As long as the voyage lasts, you cannot put me aside."
Yet for all Zimmerman's attempts to subvert the testosterone in the Jason myth, it ends up trumping the estrogen. The main problem is that the narrative, on its relentless drive toward its final goal, offers little room for tonal variety or a change of pace. The director tries to mitigate this issue by throwing myriad special effects and clever staging ideas at the production, from sea monsters made of silk sheets to flying puppet harpies to energetic, rap-style ensemble songs. But the essentially "masculine" plot structure remains intractable and the hectic visual language become cloying after a while — not to mention predictable. As a result, Zimmerman's antiheroic core message about the futility of war loses much of its impact.
It doesn't take a Ph.D. in classical literature to see the connection between Zimmerman's irreverent take on the Jason myth and the current U.S. campaign in Iraq. But if the auteur had been at the height of her imaginative powers with Argonautika, she might have found an ingenious way to break up and reshape the unyielding denouement. By replacing it with something more feminine in form, perhaps, Zimmerman might have offered a powerful vision of an alternative to misplaced battlefield heroics as embodied by the one-shoed soldier. Instead, the story feels all too familiar. With respect to the United States' involvement in Iraq, it's simply a case of waiting patiently for the other shoe to drop.