I haven’t seen a lot of Mary Zimmerman’s work, and I’m not sure why – maybe because it’s usually marketed as something to take the kids to, and I tend to avoid those performances, though children are in fact usually better behaved than adults, and if they’re not, they have excitement and inexperience to excuse them. I had seen The Secret in the Wings, based on some of Grimm’s fairy tales, at Berkeley Rep a few years ago and liked it a lot, so I trekked out there again when they presented her latest work, Argonautika, the story of Jason and the golden fleece. I liked this one too, but not quite as much; during the performance the dazzle of the staging distracts you from weaknesses in the script, especially in the second act.
The set is relatively simple and so are the props, but just about any trick that could be done with them was done, to fantastic effect (though to continue with my sea monster thing: the billowing blue cloth that went from waves to menacing monster would have been even better if the creature hadn’t looked a bit too much like Cookie Monster). That’s the part you have to experience live to appreciate. Unfortunately it’s easier to talk about the script flaws than to convey the basic theatrical excitement that can be created with a few ropes and sheets, but that’s what I’m going to do.
The whole approach to the characters was a little cartoony for my taste, and tended to limit the characters to anachronistic caricatures; just to take the goddesses, Hera is a bitchy suburban matron, Athena sort of like the butch best friend in any girl-detective story, and Aphrodite a silly giggling flirt. Hercules is a bit of a buffoon, as he often is, and Soren Oliver was large if not ideally muscular, but he was also surprisingly subtle and moving, especially in his refusal to rejoin the expedition and move on after the death of his young lover, Hylas (Justin Blanchard). In the most profoundly moving exchange of the evening, Hylas half-emerges from a trap door, transformed to a shining river god, to comfort and still the mighty man’s grief with the distant pity and long perspective of the newly immortal. (Oddly enough, though Zimmerman says in the program that Hercules and Hylas are “clearly boyfriends” they are never described in those terms during the performance; they are always called “good friends” in a way that reminded me of the New Yorker cartoon from the 1940s showing a teacher crooning to her class, “Now, of course, Anthony and Cleopatra were the very best of friends.” I don’t know if this is some misguided attempt to be family friendly or merely a laudable reluctance to insist on the semi-obvious.)
Jake Suffian as Jason had an interesting solemnity and sense of duty that might have been better suited to Aeneas; I’ve always had the feeling that Jason is sparkier. Atley Loughridge as Medea had a perfect quality of oddity and apartness about her, but the play would have benefited with less of Medea; instead of shoe-horning the whole history of Jason, Medea, and eventually their murdered children into the second half, Zimmerman should have followed the example of L’Incoronazione di Poppea and left us with the happy couple and the clear knowledge of their unhappy future, for there are two things that everyone (and by “everyone” I mean “anyone likely to buy a ticket to a show at Berkeley Rep called Argonautika”) knows about Greek mythology, and one of them is that Oedipus marries his mother, and the other is that Medea kills her children (though years ago in New York I saw Zoe Caldwell as Medea, in the Robinson Jeffers translation, with Judith Anderson as the Nurse – yes, I actually saw Dame Judith Anderson on stage; I was of course a mere slip of a lad, and she was already encrusted with legend – and when Medea came out at the end with her hands covered in blood announcing that “the stars that scorn the weak shall not be mocking me!” the man next to me, suddenly roused, exclaimed, “Did she just kill her kids? She’s nuts!” which is semi-accurate without being quite adequate).
Not only does the whole child-killing angle swamp everything else, as such a thing would tend to, but I had the feeling Zimmerman was stacking the deck on Medea's behalf. I realize there are variants to all the legends, but I’ve always read that the brother she kills to distract Jason’s pursuers was a youth; here, he’s not only a fully grown man, he’s a vulgar bully, and she’d be justified in offing him just on those grounds. We also never see or know the children, and their murder takes place offstage, so we’re not really forced to confront what she did, which might lessen our sympathy for her, but only why she did it, which increases our sympathy. So much time is taken up with the extended Medea saga that we don’t even see the fulfillment of the prophecy that Jason will kill King Pelias; that storyline, the main plot engine at the beginning, just disappears. The script is entertaining despite its flaws, but it’s the images that really make the evening; at the end, the actors slowly come out and one by one all the elements of the story are turned into the starry constellations of the zodiac, using just some twinkling lights and posing actors, and it’s pure theater magic.
I also saw my second play by Adam Bock: The Shaker Chair, with the Shotgun Players. I had seen The Typographer’s Dream at the same theater about a year ago. The Shaker Chair was a little more problematic, I felt, because it’s an issue play, and that doesn’t necessarily fit in with what I see as Bock’s strength, which is the creation of evocative conjunctions in suggestive, verbally fluid ways, which is much more entertaining on stage than it might sound. He has a Hawthorne-like touch with ambiguous symbols, such as the Shaker Chair itself, which is ornament, rebuke, luxury, and discomfort all at once. It is a recent purchase by Marion (Frances Lee McCain), a single older woman whose generally sensible attitudes can hide her quietly questioning side; she likes the new chair because it is cleanly built, and carefully designed with a reverent purpose, but she admits it’s not very comfortable. The overstuffed, possibly too comfortable chair across the living room is occupied by her sister Dolly (Nancy Shelby), whose main occupation in life is fighting with, fleeing from, and then forgiving her husband Frank (Will Marchetti). Their friend Jean (Scarlett Hepworth) enters, because Marion has the kind of house where friends naturally gather, and it turns out she’s involved in increasingly violent acts of vandalism against a local factory farm that mistreats its pigs, and Marion slowly becomes an activist.
The characters are all quite vivid, and they talk about issues the way people really do, which is actually kind of a problem in an issue play, because the way people really talk involves not thinking things through, and leaving things out, and getting flustered and forgetful, and insisting on things they know are wrong, or just wish were right, and repeating meaningless stuff loudly just because they heard it on TV or the radio. It’s very easy to lose the balance between a fairly thorough airing of the issues and the lived experience and personality of the characters. And that’s why issue plays are surprisingly difficult to write, and why Shaw, who managed the balancing act over and over, really is such a great playwright.
At slightly over an hour, the play is too brief for full coverage of the complex entanglement of agricultural mass production, looming ecological disaster, evolving humanitarian concerns, and corporate control that makes up our machine for living. I kept waiting for someone to make some obvious points about switching to a vegetarian/vegan diet, or buying locally grown and humanely raised food, or, especially, about car culture as a main cause of the world’s sickness, especially since the action starts with Jean needing to borrow Marion’s car for her mission of sabotage, but no one seems to think that there’s any choice except indifference or arson. And the issues aren’t presented in a way that would make the typical Berkeley audience question its assumptions about the whole corporate farming issue – and I’m not disagreeing with those political views, I’m just saying that you need to subvert the audience’s assumptions and smug certainties (something Shaw did regularly) for the play to be more than an evening telling us how right-thinking we are. There’s a brief moment when a live piglet is brought out (proving yet again that live animals on stage are generally a mistake, because the place fell apart; the woman two rows behind me could not shut up the whole time the piglet was trotting about), and with inadvertent irony it shows how alienated the audience is from the life of a farm; actual farm folk are much less sentimental about animals, and manage to control themselves in the presence even of cute little pink ones with delightful curly tails.
The handling of the issues is fairly schematic, but the characters make the evening interesting and complex. Dolly’s romance can seem ridiculous, or even pathetic, but she knows what’s important to her in life, and there’s a lovely moment at the beginning when she talks about her husband walking by when she’s mad at him, and smiling, and she can’t help but forgive him; and you bear that in mind, and it’s a bit of a shock, but also makes complete sense, when we finally meet Frank, and see how calculating and reptilian he actually is – though not with his wife. At the end, Marion, radicalized by the shooting death of Jean during one of her raids, sits in her Shaker chair and ponders her next step as an activist: “I could always loosen one bolt. . . .” The bolt she’s planning to loosen is obviously a symbol for the small things we can do to undermine the machine, but unlike the Shaker chair, it felt too forced and a bit fake to me. I didn’t believe for a moment that a woman like Marion, who has been concerned throughout with possible injury or damage to innocent people, would actually become that sort of violent activist, and that moment of falsity is a tribute to how skillfully and deeply Bock has let us know his characters.