Argo: The Voyage of Jason and the Argonauts

N.C. State University’s University Theatre 

Somewhere in the production process for Argo, a multimedia take on the epic Greek poem The Argonautika by NC State’s University Theatre, visual artist Darby Madewell realized just how meta the unlikely project had become.

Reflecting on how the story’s adventurous central character, Jason, is no longer the same person by the end of his journey, Madewell says, “That was true of everyone who touched this project. It was so much out of everyone’s comfort zone; we were like our own little band of Argonauts, developing as we went.”

On one level, theater is always close-knit; somewhere, even in a pandemic, a small troupe of stage artists is always taking on the world. When putting on a production, a company will invariably encounter a host of unexpected wrinkles that threaten their endeavor—before coming up with one more move to save the show. 

By nearly any measure, director Rachel Klem’s current retelling of the ancient Hellenic myth, which is available now on Youtube, is itself a tale of dramatic roadblocks—and extreme artistic countermeasures in response. 

Putting Jason’s epic expeditions on stage was never going to be easy. Broadway playwright and director Mary Zimmerman’s version—the follow-up to her Tony Award-winning Metamorphoses, which local audiences saw at PlayMakers Repertory—runs nearly three hours. When Klem initially selected that work for NC State’s mainstage season this year, its intense set design and costuming demands were set to pose a challenge as great as last year’s titanic production of Ragtime. “I wanted to work with scenic designer Jayme Mellema on something spectacular, like we did on Around the World in 80 Days,” Klem says.  

Then, the coronavirus hit. First the university’s spring productions, and then its popular summer TheatreFEST and 2020-21 season were all scrapped. In their wake, a theater program no longer able to produce live theater had to come up with other ways to teach and pursue its art form.

Klem tapped local playwright, podcaster, and audio drama producer Tamara Kissane to collaborate on a new hour-long audio adaptation of The Argonautika. “It was like this big stone plinth that we just kept chopping away at until we found the shape of what it was,” Klem says. Over marathon recording sessions, audio engineer Kevin Wright could only record two actors at a time due to social distancing restrictions. 

“We wound up with hundreds of little audio clips,” Wright says. “Editing them was like stacking matches.”

But when Klem approached Mellema and costume designer and creative director Laura Parker for storyboards for a visual component for the project, she learned her concept was still too large to execute. 

“Then I thought, what if we just sort of crowdsourced the idea: get a bunch of visual artists to storyboard it so that lots of people were working on the thing, and not just two,” Klem says. When a call went out to present and former theater students, over twenty responded, including artists from England and India.

That outpouring of creative contribution, in turn, posed a new problem for the evolving project. Normally, seven to eight people convene to manage a show’s production elements. 

“On this project, production manager David Jensen and I were liaisoning each week with twenty to twenty-two student artists,” Parker says. “It was a massive organizational challenge.

But as the cohort of visual artists were granted license to pursue their individual visions of the places Jason traveled, Argo turned into a prismatic collection of takes on an ancient text. “Each new scene is a different world and a different visual experience,” Parker observes. “As we pass from scene to scene, we see new things, through different lenses and different perspectives.” 

After artists Sun Gupta and Louis Bailey bring anime influences to a song of the Argonauts, Lydia Wonderly and Ariel Penland maneuver paper puppets against the pages of an old-fashioned pop-up book. Line drawings animate the evocative black and white photos in one of Darby Madewell’s sequences, before Kanice Granson-Holloway’s innovative animations are projected onto the sails of a 3D model of a ship. Nicole Hiemenz’s rough, zine-influenced ink drawings evoke an edgy graphic novel.

Reagan Santillian’s detailed pen-and-ink work, meanwhile, probes the internal conflicts that plague cunning King Aeëtes and his enigmatic daughter Medea. In a later Granson-Holloway sequence, projected colored oils and water in motion on a glass dish evoke the psychedelic liquid light shows of the 1960s. 

“They all kept putting me in check,” Klem says. “I’m like, ‘Wait a minute, this is really mature work coming out of these young people.’” 

For the director, Argo ultimately echoes the present moment. “We use epic stories to try and find ourselves in our own journey,” Klem says. “We’re all in this period where we don’t know what to expect from day to day and we don’t know where we’re going. We’re in the middle of a trial: We have to face our battles as they come without knowing what the end result is going to be, and heal the people who need to be healed. We’re the Argonauts.” 

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