BWW Reviews: Constellation Theatre's GILGAMESH a Highlight of the Spring Theatre Scene in Washington, DC

By: May. 06, 2013
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Audiences, prepare to be enthralled; Constellation Theatre's poetic staging of the ancient Sumerian saga "Gilgamesh" is an absolute delight for the eyes and ears. With its original poetic dialogue, its brilliant costuming and choreography, not to mention an original world-music score performed live, you have a truly fascinating evening in store for you.

The story of Gilgamesh, King of the ancient Mesopotamian realm of Uruk, was handed down through the ages and-luckily for us-committed to writing over 3,000 years ago and placed in a library. Libraries have a habit of burning, but because the medium in those days was clay the fire actually preserved this epic tale for the ages. Rediscovered by archaeologists and translated in the late 1800's, "Gilgamesh" is famous for its pre-biblical version of the famous Flood; in fact, one of the central motifs in the tale is Gilgamesh's journey to consult Utnapisthim, the Sumerian equivalent of Noah. (Readers curious to learn more can consult Stephen Mitchell's excellent translation).

For lovers of classic tales, the story line might be familiar: an arrogant king, infamous for his greed and lust, is taught a sobering lesson about love, loss, and mortality. After years of incessant bullying Gilgamesh meets his match in the half-wild Enkidu, whom he embraces as a bosom buddy. Together the two set off for a great (albeit environmentally incorrect) journey, and lay siege to the realm of Humbaba, keeper of the Cedar Forest. But no sooner have they achieved victory, and killed a few thousand trees, but Enkidu dies suddenly from a fever; Gilgamesh for the first time in his life begins to feel the pangs of true remorse, and fear for his own mortality. Abandoning his kingdom, he sets out in search of the now-immortal Utnapishtim in hopes of reviving his dear friend, whose remains he bears throughout his wanderings.

Truth be known, modern readers might be daunted by the wordiness of the original text; so Constellation's Chad Gracia has developed a new version for the stage with African-American poet Yusef Komunyakaa, whose taut, sinewy, emotional verse breathes new life to those millennia-old Cuneiform slabs. And the Constellation ensemble, led by Joel David Santner as Gilgamesh and Andreu Honeycutt as his comrade Enkidu, takes us on a fascinating journey from start to finish. Charlotte Akin, as Gilgamesh's mother Ninsun, projects so much authority that for all she cares the story should really be about her, and Nora Achrati puts in a fine, provocative turn as the great fertility goddess Ishtar.

What makes the journey of this "Gilgamesh" so utterly delightful is Constellation's commitment to the eye of the beholder; Kendra Rai's costumes evoke all the exoticism and eroticism of the tale, and Emma Crane Jaster's choreography is spell-binding; her turn as the the seductive Woman of Red Sashes is one of the highlights of the show. Ethan Sinnott's multi-level set, complete with ancient cuneiform figures carved in stone, succeeds in reminding us of the story's antiquity but with a touch of the region's geographical features as well. Klyph Stanford gives the lighting grid a good workout, and achieves some stunning effects.

Special kudos are in order, too, for composer and musician Tom Teasley, whose love of the Middle East is on full display here. Audiences are treated to music from the moment they enter the Source Theatre space, and he accompanies the dialogue and action on a variety of instruments, with melodies and sounds that are by turns discreet and strikingly original.

Running Time: 2 hours

Performances are May 2-June 2 at the Source Theatre, 1835 14th St. NW, Washington DC.

Tickets can be ordered by calling 1-800-494-8497, or at: