For a moment, you wish you'd paid more attention to mythology in high school, but it doesn't take long to realize that Bulfinch's wasn't nearly as entertaining as Mary Zimmerman's "Argonautika," which opened Wednesday at Berkeley Rep.

It's the full-on myth about Jason and the Argonauts, complete with derring-do, gods and goddesses, heroes, villains and monsters. Only when writer-director Zimmerman spins the tale, it conjures memories less of musty schoolbooks and more of Saturday afternoon matinees and midnight campfire stories.

Of course, as myths go, the one about Jason and the Argonauts is a pretty rip-snorting story.

It starts with Jason (Jake Suffian) heading over to wish his Uncle Pelias (Allen Gilmore) a happy birthday. Not coincidentally, Pelias is the king, and he holds a shaky claim to the throne. It could just as easily have gone to Jason's father, so Pelias is a bit worried that the kid may want to kill him.

Being proactive, the king suggests to his nephew that he retrieve the fleece from a golden ram from the evil empire. That would be a great thing to do for the family, but the king also knows Jason will probably get himself killed trying to rescue the golden throw rug.

Undaunted, Jason, who is played by Suffian as wide-eyed and eager -- kind of like the hero of one of those old Italian gladiator movies -- assembles a crew of tough guys and heads off in the good ship Argo to rescue the fleece and grab what rightfully belongs to the kingdom of Pelias.


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Here you might begin to sense something of an anti-war, anti-power-trip subtext blossoming in a way that can be related to contemporary events. You wouldn't be wrong, but on the other hand, Zimmerman doesn't exactly pound you on the head with the message. She seems much more intent to re-create the adventure of a lifetime in a wonderful, wild and fanciful way.

And she does exactly that, bringing in an array of puppets to interact with the human characters and take the story places mere humans couldn't go with it onstage. That's where the monsters and mythic beings, created by puppet designer Michael Montenegro, come into play, giving the show some delightfully surreal touches.

The experience of seeing the show really is like going on an adventure into some uncharted theatrical territory, and returning with memories to treasure for a long time.

Reach Pat Craig at 925-945-4736 or pcraig@bayareanewsgroup.com.

theater

  • WHAT: "Argonautika," by Mary Zimmerman

  • WHERE: Berkeley Rep, Roda Theatre, 2015 Addison St., Berkeley

  • WHEN: 8 p.m. Tuesdays and Fridays, 7 p.m. Wednesdays, 2 and 8 p.m. Thursdays and Saturdays, 2 and 7 p.m. Sundays; through Dec. 16

  • RUNNING TIME: 2 hours, 40 minutes

  • HOW MUCH: $33-$69

  • CONTACT: 510-647-2949, http://www.berkeleyrep.org