The Theatricality of Greek Myths

Myths in the Modern Theater

Mary Zimmerman, of Chicago’s Lookingglass Theater, is a true national treasure – if by no other measure than the MacArthur Genius Fellowship she was awarded for adapting “seemingly untheatrical source material from classic world literature into compelling theater.” (the MacArthur Foundation’s own words). “Arabian Nights,” “The Notebooks of Leonardo da Vinci,” “Metamorphoses,” and “Galileo Galilei,” “The Odyssey” – these and a slew of other works are testament to her “genius.”

What makes Zimmerman’s work so valuable is her joyous, endlessly engaging use of the full forces of theater. In the telling of sweeping epics, she transports the audience into ancient worlds filled with a resplendent reality of their own, made not just engaging but intellectually stimulating. Using puppets, music, dance, song, poetry, lavish costumes, clever staging, and surprisingly simple but intriguingly effect stage architecture, Zimmerman’s work is designed to be entertaining, thoughtful, and transformative.

On stage, A Noise Within (ANW), L.A.’s classical company, is now producing Zimmerman’s Argonautika complete with the sailors climbing the ship’s ropes to billow the sail and the Woman of Lemnos singing and dancing on silks (aerial acrobatics while suspended on Lycra drapes).

Argonautika is an adaptation of an ancient Greek legend – Jason and The Voyage of the Argonaut, by Apollonius Rhodius in the 3 rd Century BCE – with certain wrinkles from a Roman re-telling of the myth by Gaius Valerius Flaccus centuries later under the Emperor Vespasian (c. 90 AD). [The Romans were always laying claim the cultural glories of the much older, much more prestigious civilization they’d conquered – mostly to give their empire international legitimacy].

The epic begins when Jason, a brash one-sandaled youth of self-defined heroic stature, asserts his claim to the kingship of Iolcus (being a very early name for Macedonia, which would later spawn Alexander the Great). Raised in the mountains by a Centaur, Jason comes late to his inheritance when he learns that Pelias (a bastard half-brother of Jason’s naughty mama) is currently ruling the roost in Iolcus. But when faced with Jason and his buddies – heroes all, Pelias remembers the Oracle’s oracular warning that he would be felled by a one-sandaled kid. So Pelias acknowledges Jason’s claim, oh sure! BUT – in a move to get rid of Jason, Pelias lays on him one death-defying task to prove his worth (hoping that in this case Death won’t be defied) – find and bring the prized golden fleece to the current sitter-on-the-throne.

The intertwining entanglement of claims and counterclaims, descent from gods and demi-gods, and heroics versus bluster is masterfully handled in Zimmerman’s breezy dramaturgy. Jason’s voyage on the good ship Argo – with the heroic 8 plus the formidable, self-promoting Hercules, a legend unto his own vanity – is a seemingly impossible task made tragic, comic, and romantic by Zimmerman’s uniquely gifted approach to character, movement, and motivation.

Surely, for the nautical warriors manning the Argo, the distance alone was a challenge – the Argo was little more than a leaky skiff sailing the rough waters of the Ionian Sea in the Third Century BCE. But the obstacles were daunting to the point of death. – monsters, goddesses.

Perhaps most monstrous and yet tragic of all Jason’s obstacles was the formidable sorceress, Medea – the wife and mother of his two sons who he abandoned because, well, honey, you always knew the golden fleece was priority one for me! Yeah, it’s that kind of story.

And when it’s a good tale, well told, with an ear and eye toward the magic of total theater – it is surely a product of genius.


Deep Red Face by Alison van Pelt

BOY by Michael Lindsay-Hogg



Portraiture curated by Shane Guffogg, featuring artwork by Don Bachardy, Xander Berkeley, Jeff Britton, Laura Hipke, Michael Lindsay-Hogg, Doro Hofmann, Deborah Martin, Ed Ruscha, Paul Ruscha, Vonn Sumner, Alison Van Pelt as well as Guffogg himself, opened on November 11, 2017, at Orange County Center for Contemporary Art. ​ It closes on December 22.

Art. It can be seen, felt, and heard. It can tickle our senses. It can be jarring, challenging our ideas of beauty. Art can be exhilarating, giving us the key to the universe.  What was the purpose of art throughout the ages and what is it now? It is a reflection of who we are, like a 2-way mirror, and depending on what side your standing, defines what you see. My name is Shane Guffogg, and I am an artist. Join me as I look at and try to define this elusive thing called Art.   –  SHANE GUFFOGG

LOST ICON #2 by Doro Hoffman

WHO DO YOU SAY I AM? by Laura Hipke

I highly recommend this exhibition, which features so much strong work, it will restore your faith in contemporary painting.  And it’s free!  Definitely worth the drive. – Steve F


Saturday, December 2, 2017,

from 6 PM – 10 PM

Orange County Center

for Contemporary Art 

117 North Sycamore Street, Santa Ana, California 92701


ROTTERDAM by John Brittain, Directed by Michael A. Shepperd

Ashley Romans and Miranda Wynne

The critics have weighed in on Rotterdam, and they are unanimous in their praise.  All I can say is that it is well-deserved, both for the play and for Michael A Shepperd’s winning production.  The play is simply a breakthrough in dealing with issues of gender and sexual identity.  (It is not concerned with racial identity, even though one of the two major characters is a person of color.  It works here, though I wonder if it would if the play took place in Richmond VA rather than Rotterdam.)  While it will be described as a “transgender play,” the truth is, it is simply a play about people struggling with difficult situations – flawed human beings trying their best to find happiness. The play does a wonderful job of giving us the feeling of real life, in which people have no idea how things are going to turn out and can’t understand why it’s so difficult.  I loved this absence of melodrama.  Michael Shepperd and the actors make it all flow.

THE SECRET IN THE WINGS by Mary Zimmerman, Directed by Joseph V. Calarco

Audrey Flegel, Leslie Murphy and Kate Pelensky (Photo: John Klopping)

In the last few years, I have seen Leon Russom play King Lear, the patriarch in Sam Shepard’s Buried Child, and as French Stewart’s bff in Padraic Duffy’s Past Time – all deeply-felt performances that stayed with me long after the curtains came down. In Mary Zimmerman’s enigmatic and haunting Secret in the Wings, Leon plays an ogre named Leon Russom who is asked by deeply self-absorbed parents to babysit their terrified teenage daughter, who is certain that Leon is going to eat her.  And when they’ve been left alone, that seems entirely possible. Instead he starts telling her stories – very grim fairy tales that go the heart of human darkness: brutality, incest, cannibalism, war,  In one story, a princess declares that no man can make her laugh. Her father the King offers her hand in marriage to anyone who can.  But if they fail, watch out.  A procession of stand-up comics try their best, but the princess’s funnybone proves very difficult to locate.  But in another story, there is the possibility of redemption – something that the play offers us too.  In the end, Leon Russom (the ogre) shows us that we are all under a spell, and that if we can just break through, there is love and forgiveness on the other side.  This production is lovingly staged by Joseph Calarco, with a great “attic” set by JR Bruce, beautifully lit by Brandon Baruch, with evocative sound design by Calarco and costumes/masks by Kumie Asai.  The actors are fully-committed to the surreal world they find themselves in, and that they draw the audience into.  And then there is Leon Russom, very much one of a kind.