The mythmakers at Constellation Theatre Company, who previously produced The Ramayana, The Green Bird, and Metamorphoses, have now gone after the world’s oldest story. Gilgamesh, the ancient Mesopotamian tale of a king’s quest to defeat death, teaches that death is eternal; the production relishes in the fact that legends are, too. The epic resurrects looking pretty splendid, considering it’s at least 4,000 years old.
With Constellation’s characteristic cocky flair, a host of Babylonian gods and demons come to life looking decadent in costume designer Kendra Rai’s swaths of silk and chiffon. Stitching history to myth with a sharp sense of balance, the design includes a lot of loin cloths (and a lot of loins) as well as an array of glittering divine regalia. Particularly eye-catching are the inventively-attired “scorpion people” and The Woman of the Red Sashes (played as a seductively smooth-moving belly dancer by Emma Jaster).
Rai’s partner in weaving the story’s lavish aura is composer-percussionist Tom Teasley. Stabled stage left, Teasley unleashes a stampede of sounds including drums, flutes, and a magic xylophone. Along with Ethan Sinnott’s set of sandstone ruins riddled with cuneiform, these excellent designs conjure a Mesopotamian dream-world.
Unfortunately, the friendship at the heart of Gilgamesh isn’t nearly as palpable as the designs’ collaborative amity. The story revolves around the bond between the arrogant God-King Gilgamesh (Joel David Santner), to whom the gods send a spirit-brother, Enkidu (Andreu Honeycutt).
A perfect match for Gilgamesh’s strength, the wild Enkidu teaches Gilgamesh to value his human side more than the divine. When Enkidu is killed, Gilgamesh’s grief drives him to the ends of the earth, looking for a way to see his friend again. The strength of this archetypal friendship has resonated with readers in multiple millennia.
Sadly, the two friends’ chemistry fails to materialize onstage. Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Yusef Komunyakaa’s evocative dialogue yearns for a physical embodiment of the warriors’ mutual devotion, but the noogies and backslaps which Santner and Honeycutt share chime discordantly with Komunyakaa’s verse, seeming an idiom for little more than an epic bromance. Honeycutt’s affected caveman growl, too, is a grating choice given the articulacy of his lines.
Director Allison Arkell Stockman’s talent for spectacle finds better footholds in the story’s minor moments. The play’s cast of nine don a whirlwind array of masks and cloaks to become, among many roles, a chorus of city elders, a rushing river, and a charging bull. In these moments, the staging is precise to the point of choreography.
These situations exhibit the transformative powers of the human body, working together with the myth to celebrate life and marvel at its incomprehensible variety.
Closes June 2, 2013
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2 hours with 1 intermission
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It’s at these moments, when drums in the wings herald the arrival of another figure of ancient fantasy, that the production enhances its source material’s sense of mystery and thrill. The ensemble’s combined imaginative powers imbue the myth with sensory richness and appropriate doses of playfulness.
When he’s left onstage alone to speak an unspeakable grief, the story’s allegorical weight is a lot for Santner to carry. He, and the production, do best in moments where there’s a mythological baddie to shake a sword at–even at close range, Casey Kaleba’s fight choreography is exhilarating.
So ultimately, though the production fails to skewer the emotional heart of the story, its splendor lends a sensory liveliness to this legend unlikely to be found in an archaeology museum. Komunyakaa’s new translation leads the way in dusting off an ancient tale, bringing it for the first time to a stage with belly-dancing, drum-pounding life.
Gilgamesh . A World Premiere with Poetry by Pulitzer Prize Winner Yusef Komunyakaa . Concept & Dramaturgy by Chad Gracia . Directed by Allison Arkell Stockman . Live Music performed by Tom Teasley . Designers: Kendra Rai: Costume Design . Scenic Design: Ethan Sinnott . Lighting Design: Klyph Stanford . Puppets: Matthew McGee . Choreography: Casey Kaleba and Emma Crane Jaster . Produced by Constellation Theatre Company . Reviewed by Robert Duffley
Doug Rule . MetroWeekly
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