Los Angeles Theater Review: JASON AND THE ARGONAUTS (Wallis Annenberg Center in Beverly Hills)

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by Jason Rohrer on January 17, 2014

in Theater-Los Angeles,Tours

A TRIP

Your average 4 to 12  year old carries enough infectious optimism and joie de vivre to put even a theater critic in a good mood.  But childless people who like children notice things about them that parents can’t, for reasons of familiarity and self-preservation.  Everybody knows there’s a biological reward for being around kids, God’s way of insuring the next generation doesn’t get abandoned: the reassurance that not every human being is jaded and grasping and hateful.  (Kids are grasping, but there’s something charming about pre-ennui narcissism.)  So, parents, thanks for putting your kids out there in the world for me to play with.  But if you knew how much your kids stank, if you weren’t so used to it, if it weren’t so much trouble to get them in the tub, you’d wash the damn things.  The dirty secret of children’s theater is that it reeks of farts and feet.

Tim Settle & Neil Thomas in Visible Fictions' JASON AND THE ARGONAUTS.There’s something heartbreaking and precious about even that aspect of children.  And when they’re giggling and howling and shrieking with delight, as they do for 65 minutes at Visible Fictions’ Jason and the Argonauts, a roomful of fart is a small price to pay for a month’s endorphins.

In Douglas Irvine’s always good, occasionally excellent staging of Robert Forrest’s perfectly structured script, Tim Settle and Neil Thomas play two actors performing a children’s version of the Golden Fleece saga.  It begins unimpressively, with the childlike Settle and the straight-man Thomas doing an elementary Dean and Jerry bit about the manner in which to present the show.  But soon, via a cheap, funny collection of props (dolls and paper boats and shabby crowns) and a fun, super-versatile set piece by Robin Peoples, the show takes off.  Settle is a world-class performer, the specificity and delineation of his character work as fine as you’re likely to see on any stage (he and Thomas play dozens of roles).  And the writing and direction combine for transporting moments: the Argo under attack from a four-armed sea monster, the storming of the castle, the burial at sea of a drowned sailor.

Tim Settle & Neil Thomas in Visible Fictions' JASON AND THE ARGONAUTS.This show comes from Scotland, not America, and so it does not skimp on the scary.  It tells its target audience of impressionable kids the story of kings murdering their brothers, and trying to murder children; there’s a witch; frightening beasts menace the audience; ships are wrecked by giant stones; the hero is duplicitous; his romance is illicit.  (They stop the tale before Medea kills her own children.  Even Europe is reluctant to exploit infanticide as a matinee entertainment.)

These are wonderful things to be able to report about a kids’ show.  One reason kids like it so much is that it makes intricate sense, unlike so much of what gets forced upon them on television, at the movies, in theaters (see Aladdin and his Winter Wish).  Even when the kids might lose the narrative thread for a minute, the action is always moving forward.  The kids feel smarter because they know they’re not being talked down to, that something is expected of them, that intellectual participation is necessary to the enjoyment of this event.  It’s the way you train a citizen to be useful, as opposed to shutting them down with loud pop music and colorful video graphics and banal choreography.

Neil Thomas (top) & Tim Settle in Visible Fictions' JASON AND THE ARGONAUTS.This show is admirably low-tech, and uses the same story-theater-playbook techniques that put Peter and the Starcatcher in Tony territory: use of practical effects whenever possible, invention and playfulness over production, performance-based effects, carpentry as the primary design element, and the overall embrace of specifically theatrical gestures.  The use of models in storytelling.  Imagination as a virtue.

Perhaps as a result of this aesthetic, Paul Ancell’s lighting struck me as unfinished: mostly effective but with half as many looks as the busy, fast-moving show required.  There are other imperfections: an actor with empathy and good timing, Thomas is miscast in a role that requires great delineation of multiple characters.  Some of the action is staged too far downstage, where from the steep rake of the Lovelace Studio Theater seats, it’s hard to see what’s going on if you’re three feet tall.  Whatever.  Kids can stand on the seats, and they do, and it’s fine.

One grown patron was overheard to say afterward that she might have enjoyed the show if she were four years old.  She was four once, probably around the same time I was.  And I’m sorry she doesn’t like this kind of thing anymore, because all the actual children and I had a great time.

Tim Settle in Visible Fictions' JASON AND THE ARGONAUTS.

photos courtesy of Visible Fictions

Jason and the Argonauts
Visible Fictions
Lovelace Studio Theater
Wallis Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts
9390 N. Santa Monica Blvd, Beverly Hills
scheduled to end on February 2, 2014
for tickets, call 310-746-4000 or visit www.TheWallis.org
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or more info, visit http://visiblefictions.co.uk/

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