REVIEW WRITTEN BY ANDERS BACK
For Digital First Media
Three thousand years ago the story of Jason, the Argonauts and their quest for the Golden Fleece was more popular than our era’s The Lord of the Rings and more violent (barely) than Game of Thrones.
Murderous kings and sorceresses, patricide, fratricide and infanticide, monstrous beasts and vengeful gods were staples of these popular stories. The stories that were most popular survived to become myths.
The myth of the Golden Fleece was so popular that nearly every nation-state and tribe around the Mediterranean claimed they had a relative aboard Jason’s 50-oared ship, the Argo.
That sturdy vessel would have sunk under the weight of all the local celebrities supposedly taking passage and would have really needed a century to reach its destination because of all the stops it would have made along the way.
To lighten up the legend, tone down the violence and make it accessible to younger audiences People’s Light in Malvern invited the popular Scottish theater company Visible Fictions, led by director Douglas Irvine and writer Robert Forrest with actors Simon Donaldson and Tim Settle, to retell Jason’s story with more than a bit of Pythonesque silliness. The Philadelphia-area premiere of their two-actor production Jason and the Argonauts is just the kind of rousing and family-friendly tale winter weary housebound folks in the western suburbs (and their kids over age 9) need to remind them that spring is here and by the way, nearly anyone can become a hero.
Irvine says he was inspired by the 1963 Argonauts film with its groundbreaking stop-motion animation created by the master of special effects Ray Harryhausen. But with a (very) small special effects budget, Visible Fictions chooses to work with what’s available in the nearest prop room and toy store. Classical scholars probably won’t like seeing the story of Jason retold using broomsticks for swords, ships made out of old newspapers and a bold crew consisting almost entirely of plastic action figures. But they are not the audience Visible Fictions is trying to reach. Nearly everyone else will love it.
The audience is quickly introduced (and tries vainly to follow) the classic Greek plotline, as the usurping King Pelias seizes the throne of Iolcan from his half-brother Aeson. Pelias murders Aeson and his family except for his son Jason, who is smuggled out of the kingdom and raised by the centaur Chiron (some might wish director Doug Irvine had included more scenes of Jason’s childhood with his awesome foster parent).
By the time we learn that Jason has been tasked by Pelias with getting the fabulous Golden Fleece from the country of Colchis to regain the crown of Iolcan there’s no time before “all aboard” to really get to know the Argonauts other than Hercules, the most famous of the crew.
He muscles his way onto the Argo and wants to take over the captaincy. There are quick appearances by the shipbuilder Argus, Orpheus the poet, Hylas the archer, Euphemus the famous swimmer (whose brief appearances in his action figure persona are guaranteed laugh-getters) and Castor the wrestler.
The brave (if somewhat inflexible) crew face the multi-armed sea monster Ceto, the smelly but terrifying half-woman, half-bird Harpies and Saurus the Dragon who sleeplessly guards the Golden Fleece. Donaldson and Settle portray more than 25 characters between them and are so assured and comfortable with the script that they weave in and out of character like birds themselves, slipping, dipping and diving easily from one persona to another seamlessly.
IF YOU GO: Jason and the Argonauts will be performed through April 4 at People’s Light and Theater, 39 Conestoga Road in Malvern. For tickets call 610-644-3500 or visit peopleslight.org