WASHINGTON, May 8, 2013 – Once again, Constellation Theatre reaches back into ancient myth and comes up with another moody, colorful, and enthralling trip on their Wayback Machine. Last season, we took a trip to Waterworld in their elaborate production of Mary Zimmerman’s unique take on Ovid’s Metamorphoses. This month, their current, world-premiere production of Gilgamesh at the Source, once again whisks the audience back through the shadowy mists of time to visit yet another epic tale. This current offering, loaded as it is with heroes and monsters, also functions as an ancient morality tale on the meaning of life, love, and loyalty.
The ancient, original version of Gilgamesh was also the most recently discovered of the ancient epics now available to us. It involves the exploits of a legendary Mesopotamian king whose heroic journeys and battles uncover for him the meaning of life. When it was actually translated in the 19th century, it caused quite a stir, as it alludes in detail to the ancient tale of Noah and his Biblical flood. Except that Gilgamesh pre-dates the Bible, and this epic’s answer to Noah is the reclusive Utnapishtam.
Constellation’s dramatic version of Gilgamesh is the end product of a close collaboration between Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Yusef Komunyakaa and Chad Gracia. (You can read more about their effort here.) The result, an understandably abridged version of the tale, nonetheless contains all this epic’s key elements. Even more interesting, the current drama’s poetic language and styling strongly hearken back to ancient verse traditions, where metrics tended toward the syllabic rather than the accentual–the latter of which became the prevailing standard in Western poetry until well into the 20th century.
Those not familiar with the plot of Gilgamesh will find it adheres to the time-honored pattern of the “quest narrative.” In this case, the powerful but arrogant King Gilgamesh, accustomed to getting his own way, particularly when it comes to sampling young brides on their wedding nights, incurs the wrath of the gods, even though he is half-god himself. To teach him a lesson, the gods send the feral Enkidu, part-man, part animal, to do battle with the King.
Each battles the other to exhaustion, which logically means they must respect one another’s powers and become fast friends. We find them soon vowing to do battle with the sinister monster of the forest, Humbaba.
The pair eventually defeats the monster, but Enkidu perishes as a result of the adventure. Emotionally devastated in a way he has never experienced, Gilgamesh launches his quest for the meaning of life, which, again echoing other epics, involves a dangerous journey to the underworld to find the spirit of Enkidu.
With the help of Klyph Stanford’s evocative lighting, Ethan Sinnott’s spare but imaginative set, and Kendra Rai’s exotic costumes, not to mention this production’s marvelously stylized, poetic script, Constellation actually approximates the look, feel, and sensation of a story at once ancient and contemporary.
Sinnott’s rocky, cave-pocked, cuneiform-marked set conjures up to a surprising degree the sense of a harsh, Tigris-Euphrates desert space, likely now part of modern Iraq, where the mythic story of Gilgamesh unfolds. In the background this area’s most original one-man band, Tom Teasley—who notably set the mood for last year’s production of Metamorphoses—provides an evocative and haunting musical background for Gilgamesh by blending percussive elements with brief, reedy motifs whose likely origins in the music of the American Indian seem weirdly capable of conjuring up more ancient spirits.
Under the sensitive direction of Allison Arkell Stockman—who also helmed last year’s Metamorphoses—Constellation’s talented cast members, several of whom play more than one role, create another time, place, and sensation, one that’s far distant from ours but recognizably human nonetheless.
On stage for nearly one hundred per cent of the time, Joel David Santner creates a powerful, heroic, arrogant Gilgamesh. Full of himself, steeped in the knowledge that he’s actually part god, his Gilgamesh is capable of recalibrating and learning—particularly that most important of lessons whereby he’s able to pull back much of his overweening, arrogant pride, which the Greeks called hubris, the better to replace it with wisdom and understanding.
As his mysterious counterpart, Enkidu, Andreu Honeycutt turns in a magnificent performance as a primeval, part-human creature that also evolves his human part to blend his warrior spirit with true friendship and humanity. Together in this production, Santner’s Gilgamesh and Honeycutt’s Enkidu seem for all purposes to reflect a primitive vision of ego and id in which one element is ultimately lost without the other. This recognition is why Gilgamesh must continue his descent into hell, driven to resolve his newly discovered sense of human and heroic balance.
Other characters move in and out, providing either wise advice or daunting obstacles along Gilgamesh’s treacherous path. As Ninsun, the mother of Gilgamesh, Charlotte Akin provides him with wise and elegant counsel, helping him resolve the conflicts he must bear as a man-god.
In three different roles—a hunter-peasant, the dreaded monster Humbaba, and Noah figure Utnapishtam who materializes near the end of Gilgamesh’s quest—the protean Jim Jorgensen is nearly, and delightfully, unrecognizable as he becomes each character. The costuming helps, but so do his considerable acting skills.
Emma Crane Jaster, in addition to her acting skills, proves an impressive dancer, gymnast, and temptress as well in her colorful role as the Woman of Red Sashes, returning for a brief, spooky turn as the Scorpion Woman in this drama’s second half. Not surprisingly, she also created the free-spirited yet highly stylized choreography for this production.
The remaining cast members—Manu Kumasi, Katy Carkuff, Ashley Ivey, and Nora Achrati fill out multiple roles quietly but ably, absorbing into their roles in a convincing way.
As with last season’s Metamorphoses, this production is not your normal theatrical bill of fare. Reflecting timeless realities yet not of our time, Constellation’s Gilgamesh, like the epic upon which it is founded, relates truth through timeless, highly stylized poetry and dance movements. In short, it’s a colorful, haunting evening of theater. We can, without reservation, recommend this production highly for theatergoers seeking something new, intellectually provocative, and deeply evocative.
Rating: **** (Four out of four stars)
Constellation’s Gilgamesh runs through June 2, 2013 at the Source Theatre, 1835 14th St. NW, Washington DC. For tickets and information, call 1-800-494-8497, or visit the Constellation Theatre website.
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