Building a myth

Set designer Daniel Ostling has set sail with director Mary Zimmerman once again.

The two Chicago-based artists have a long history working together at Zimmerman’s artistic home, the Lookingglass Theatre Company. Ostling designed her extraordinary production of Metamorphoses, which Berkeley Repertory Theatre produced before the show moved on to Broadway, where it nabbed Zimmerman a Tony Award. He also designed her Secret in the Wings, another show that came to Berkeley Rep after its Chicago run.

The next Zimmerman-Ostling collaboration to make the journey west is Argonautika, a retelling of the Jason and the Argonauts story.

The play previews at Berkeley Rep’s Roda Theatre this weekend and opens Wednesday before heading east to the McCarter Theatre Center in Princeton, N.J., and the Shakespeare Theatre Company in Washington, D.C.

The idea for the set was to create a completely immersive experience — as if audience and actors were all in a site-specific piece of artwork. More specifically, Ostling and Zimmerman put the entire production, audience and all, into the wooden confines of the Argos, Jason’s trusty ship.

But the Lookingglass is a flexible space, with infinite possibilities. At the Roda (and at the two other theaters on this mini-tour), however, Ostling’s challenge was to adapt an unconventional set for a proscenium space.

“How do we keep that sense of austereness of the ship and keep the same energy while also embracing the new spaces?” Ostling asked himself.

At Lookingglass, the audience was essentially in the boat, but in a proscenium stage, the audience is looking at the boat.

“To me, the most thrilling thing about being in the theater is being in the theater,” Ostling says. “When you look through the set, we leave it open to the back of the theater, so we’re self-referencing that we’re in a theater. That will come and go. Sometimes you’ll be aware of that, other times it’s less present. I think that keeps the energy alive in a proscenium theater.”

Like most of us, Ostling’s only real experience with the Jason and the Argonauts story came from the old movie, which was best known for its Ray Harryhausen stop-motion special effects. He says Zimmerman’s version of the story was something of a revelation to him.

“I think Act 1 is what people expect from Mary — adventures, lots of monsters, very heroic voyages,” Ostling explains. “The second act, when Jason returns to Medea, he’s very much the antihero, very human. His relationship with Medea, his manipulation and using her, it’s pretty amazing. Act 2 is very powerful — darker than what you might expect. It sort of punches you in the stomach.”

Argonautika continues through Dec. 16 at the Roda Theatre, 2015 Addison St., Berkeley. Tickets are $33-$69. Call 510-647-2949 or visit for information.

One thought on “Building a myth

  1. I’ve been wondering how they’re going to reconfigure this show for the proscenium stage. I’ll be eager to read your take on it.

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