Constellation Theatre Company GilgameshBy Bob Ashby • May 9th, 2013 • Category: Reviews
Constellation Theatre Company: (Info) (Web)
Source Theatre, Washington DC
Through June 2nd
2:20 with one intermission
$35-$45/$25 Student general seating
Reviewed May 5th, 2013
It is the oldest surviving written story in the world, with origins long predating Homer and the Bible. Created by Babylonian poet Sir-leqi-unninni around the 12th century BCE from sources some of which dated back a thousand or more years earlier, the Gilgamesh poem describes the arrogance, heroism, grief, and growing wisdom of a king of the Sumerian city of Uruk. Constellation Theater’s Gilgamesh (poetry by Yusef Komunyakaa, concept and dramaturgy by Chad Garcia) condenses the epic-scale poem into a compact two hours, the strength of which is in excellent technical theater and movement.
Begin with Ethan Sinnott’s set, the audience left and center portions of which are dominated by gray walls representing cuneiform tablets like those on which the epic was written, behind which are black walls with more cuneiform-style script. On audience right are strata of gray rocks, framing a cave-like entrance. Before the play ever starts, the audience is immersed in an ancient, distant literary world, with the always-skillful Tom Teasley’s musical accompaniment adding an important aural dimension.
Throughout the production, Kendra Rai’s costumes lent color and characterization. A regal red design for Ninsun, Gilgamesh’s mother; a flowing gold cape and high heels with claws for Ishtar; diaphanous, detachable sashes for The Woman of the Red Sashes; tight-fitting black lycra for the Scorpion People; dark cloaks with Assyrian-looking masks for the Elders; more subdued colors and simpler designs for “common people” like a hunter and the Siduri, a barmaid — the variety and combinations of looks made the production a visually arresting one. Except for a royal red costume in the initial scenes, Gilgamesh and Enkidu, the two most important characters, have the most minimal garb, all the better to show off the actors’ musculature, perhaps. Mathew McGee’s puppet for the head of the Bull of Heaven, with its glowing green eyes, would be enough to frighten characters less intrepidly heroic than Gilgamesh and Enkidu.
The efforts of fight director Casey Kaleba and choreographer Emma Crane Jaster created some striking scenes. The fight/male bonding episode between Gilgamesh and Enkidu; stylized sexual encounters between The Woman of the Red Sashes and Enkidu in the first act and Gilgamseh and Siduri in the second; the battle among Enkidu, Gilgamesh, and Humbaba (abetted by ensemble members representing trees), closely followed by the killing of the Bull of Heaven; a storm as Gilgamesh attempts to cross the River of Death; Gilgamesh’s near-drowning as he seeks a flower that renews life — as this list suggests, there is one memorable movement piece after another. The entire cast, particularly Joel David Santner as Gilgamesh and Andreu Honeycutt as Enkidu, are fine physical actors. Honeycutt is especially impressive in his opening scene as a part-man, part-animal creature before The Woman of Red Sashes (Emma Crane Jaster) sexually initiates him into civilization.
It’s at the level of words that the production encounters some difficulty. Komunyakaa’s language is very plain and pedestrian, with a very modern cadence (sometimes indulging in contemporary phrases like “Do you know who I am?” and “second-guessing”). The tone is often at odds with the mythic nature of the material and the ancient world convincingly created by the set. There is little of majesty and awe in lines that are spoken by, and about, kings, gods, and heroes, and that address the deepest human concerns of life and death.
The problem is compounded by some of the production’s line delivery choices. There are exceptions — Gilgamesh’s last speech of the first act, in which he laments Enkidu’s death, is emotionally powerful — but Santner typically gives his character a curiously flat affect with little variation. Honeycutt, on the other hand, with fewer lines, more satisfyingly characterizes Enkidu (somewhat annoyingly pronounced as “inky-dew,” with the accent on the first syllable) with his voice. Members of the three-person chorus — a pre-Greek chorus, one might say, though they perform the same narrative and commenting function — deliver their lines in a very declamatory way, augmented by highly stylized gestures and, for some reason, bits of American Sign Language. “Show, don’t tell” is one of the oldest clichés of the theater business, and Constellation’s Gilgamesh includes a great deal of telling.
The relationship between Gilgamesh and Enkidu — a precursor to famous male pairings like Achilles and Patroclus, or David and Jonathan — necessarily includes a strong homoerotic element that, while suggested to a limited extent in the scene following their fight, seems underemphasized. As fellow warriors, the characters share a “Band of Brothers”-type bond to be sure, and their friendship is genuine, but the overwhelming grief that Gilgamesh expresses after Enkidu’s death needs a deeper, more passionate foundation. As Stephen Mitchell comments in the introduction to his 2004 version of the poem, “Both men come to feel their friendship as a kind of marriage, and each one could say, as David says of Jonathan, ‘Thy love to me [is] wonderful, passing the love of women.'”(p. 24) In Mitchell’s text, Ninsun interprets a dream to tell her son that he will “take him [i.e., Enkidu] in your arms, embrace and caress him the way a man caresses his wife,” and, following their fight, they kiss.”(pp. 83, 90) Komunyakaa and Garcia would have done well to pay greater attention to this aspect of the story’s central relationship.
It is inevitable, of course, that adapting and condensing a lengthy text into a relatively short theater piece will result in some material, and some nuances, being omitted; adaptors also have the opportunity to reshape material for their dramatic purposes. Interestingly, it is some of the female characters whose roles are most noticeably changed from the poem to the stage. Ninsun (Charlotte Akin), her divine nature notwithstanding, is portrayed as a very human caring, but sometimes nagging, mother. Ishtar (Nora Achrati) — the goddess of love, sex, and war, and probably the most powerful deity in Sumerian culture — becomes a petulant femme fatale. Siduri (Katy Carkuff), in the poem a compassionate tavern keeper, becomes a sexy barmaid who takes the initiative to become Gilgamesh’s lover as he continues his quest. At the end of the play, in another development not found in the poem, The Woman of Red Sashes — based on a priestess of Ishtar named Shamhat in the poem — returns to become Gilgamesh’s lover, who he names Siduri in honor of the woman he left behind him. In giving Gilgamesh two lovers that the underlying material does not, Komunyakaa and Garcia risk shifting the story’s emphasis away from Gilgamesh’s realization that there is no escape from death and that his task is to return to his kingdom the benefit of what he has learned on his journey.
Jim Jorgenson deserves mention both as a frightening Humbaba and a kindly but realistic Utnapishtam, who survived the great flood — the template for Noah’s — and is the only man granted immortality by the gods. Achrati, Carkuff, Jaster, Manu Kumasi, and Ashley Ivey do versatile work as the chorus, the Elders, and other ensemble roles.
As Joseph Campbell convincingly argued in his classic The Hero With a Thousand Faces, heroic journeys like that of Gilgamesh are a staple of mythology across a wide variety of cultures and religions that continue to resonate in contemporary life. Constellation’s production provides a colorful and active presentation of the outline of this hero’s journey that is well worth watching.
This epic is the oldest written legend, dating back 4,000 years. Ancient Mesopotamia feels far away, a land populated by foreign gods and a time of symbols and prophecy. Yet, living with this story, I am amazed to discover that the ideas and emotions at its core are so central to the universal human experience that it feels immediate and essential today.
Our play begins with an Eden-like scene of animals frolicking in nature, escaping the traps of man. Yet in the City of Uruk there is fear, unrest and suffering. King Gilgamesh, part man and part god, relishes in violence and has an insatiable appetite for virgin brides and tributes of wine and meat. The gods create Enkidu, part man and part animal, to be his perfect rival, to humble him and to restore peace to the land. Through his love for Enkidu, Gilgamesh discovers compassion and kindness.
When the brothers are torn apart, Gilgamesh experiences life through a vast range of adventures with fantastic creatures in mystical environments. Ultimately, he must accept that time travels in only one direction and he cannot control the universe. He relinquishes earthly ambitions and faces the world with humility, generosity and an open heart.
The epic of Gilgamesh has all the hallmarks of great entertainment: combat, danger, lovemaking, and mystery. It is easy to imagine our ancient ancestors reading chapters of this story out loud to a captivated audience. Yet, it is also a morality tale about what characteristics make a good leader. This worldview does not invest in an afterlife and the gods are portrayed as unpredictable, kind in one moment and vindictive the next. The story celebrates man’s animal-like ability to love and cherish other creatures.
Collaborating with 40 other artists to create the production you see before you has been a rewarding, challenging and joyful process. Please spread the word about Gilgamesh to your family and friends and help us expand our audience.
I hope you will return to Constellation as a Subscriber in Season 7!
The People Of Uruk
- Gilgamesh: Joel David Santner
- Ninsun: Charlotte Akin
- Hunter: Jim Jorgensen
- Hunter’s Son: Manu Kumasi
- Geshtinanna: Katy Carkuff
- The Woman of Red Sashes: Emma Crane Jaster
- The Traveler: Ashley Ivey
- The Elders: Nora Achrati, Katy Carkuff, Manu Kumasi
- Enkidu: Andreu Honeycutt
- Humbaba: Jim Jorgensen
- Ishtar: Nora Achrati
- Bull of Heaven: Ashley Ivey, Manu Kumasi
- Scorpion Man: Ashley Ivey
- Scorpion Woman: Emma Crane Jaster
- Siduri: Katy Carkuff
- Urshanabi: Ashely Ivey
- Utnapishtam: Jim Jorgensen
- Utnapishtam’s Wife: Charlotte Akin
- Director: Allison Arkell Stockman
- Composer/Live Musician: Tom Teasley
- Scenic Designer: Ethan Sinnott
- Costume Designer: Kendra Rai
- Lighting Designer: Klyph Stanford
- Puppet Designer: Matthew McGee
- Fight Director: Casey Kaleba
- Dramaturg: Jefferson Farber
- Properties Designer: Rebecca Dieffenbach
- Choreographer: Emma Crane Jaster
- Assistant Director: Gwen Grastorf
- Production/Stage Manager: Cheryl Ann Gnerlich
- Technical Director: Jason Krznarich
Disclaimer: Constellation Theatre Company provided two complimentary media tickets to ShowBizRadio for this review.
This article can be linked to as: http://washingtondc.showbizradio.com/goto/9478.
Bob Ashby has been an active participant in the Washington-area community theater scene since his arrival in town in 1975.