Perhaps the activity that most makes us human is our ability to tell stories. One of the oldest stories ever told is the epic of Gilgamesh, a tyrant king whose adventures were first written down approximately 5,000 years ago in Sumeria, a part of the world sometimes called the cradle of civilization — and today called Iraq.
Cincinnati playwright Blake Bowden has translated and retold that mythic story faithfully while using a filter that makes it timely and meaningful to contemporary audiences. It's currently onstage at the Aronoff Center's black box in a production by Performance Gallery, a group that excels at pushing boundaries and plumbing the depths of theatrical texts. They've come up with a winner in Gilgamesh in Uruk: G.I. in Iraq, a highly inventive, genuinely emotional and roundly entertaining piece of theater.
Here's how it works: Two soldiers, Josh (Peter Moore) and Ken (Derek Snow), are outside a base in Iraq. Josh is about to return home, but he fears the future. Nearby is the body of a dead Iraqi woman.
The victim of post-traumatic stress disorder, Josh won't admit he's been suffering from bad dreams. Ken tries to calm him with Middle Eastern music on his iPod, melodies that change the mood and morph the storytelling into a mythic realm.
Moore becomes King Gilgamesh, while Snow evolves into a wild man from the wilderness who is first Gilgamesh's opponent and then his greatest friend, Enkidu.
Gilgamesh decides to establish his legacy by traveling to a faraway land and slaying a monster, Humbaba (Aretta Baumgardner, with technical assistance from Daniel Britt and Jim Prues). He does so and returns victorious to Uruk, but his legacy is far from guaranteed. In fact, he angers the gods, who take Enkidu from him.
For the balance of the story, Gilgamesh wanders in search of answers to his grief and in hopes of making himself whole again. As the story concludes, we return to present-day Iraq where the stories told take on new meaning.
Bowden, who also serves as a member of the ensemble cast (he's especially amusing as a bong-smoking fellow who won't let Gilgamesh pass his mountain), has found the universal elements within this ancient tale and translated them into amusing and thoughtful episodes that teach Gilgamesh — and the audience — lessons about leading a satisfying life. Along the way, we see the true value of storytelling: At the play's end, as the soldiers part company, Ken tells Josh that the best way to connect with others is via stories. "Give me a story," he says. "I soak that right up." What's more, he adds, "Be willing to share stories and hear the stories of others," even if they differ from your own.
Bowden's previous playwriting — he adapted J.R.R. Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings trilogy into three plays presented locally in 2001, 2002 and 2003 — was also absorbed by the process of storytelling, but it was closely tied to his source material in a way that never quite stood on its own. With Gilgamesh, and with the collaborative mindset of Performance Gallery, he has elevated myth to a profound level of meaning — while still providing some memorable entertainment during the two-and-a-half hour performance.
That's also the result of strong work by director Regina Pugh and a cast consisting of Bowden, Daryl Harris, Jodie Linver, Willemien Patterson, Adam Standley and Lindsey Valitchka. They represent the gods who dictate and shape the lives of mortals, but they also take on other roles — often quite humorous and occasionally touching.
Harris and Patterson as the immortal Utnapishtim and his wife become a kvetching Jewish couple; Valitchka is a sexy Ishtar, goddess of love and vengeance, who makes an irate cell phone call to her parents Anu (Harris) and Aruru (Patterson) when Gilgamesh rejects her amorous advances. Standley is especially amusing as Urshanabi, played as a quirky, turban-wearing collector of stone dwarfs, whom Gilgamesh convinces to sail him across the Sea of Death.
Snow and Moore are excellent as the stalwart heroes, articulate in their thoughtfulness (Moore balances his portrait of the tyrannical Gilgamesh against the soldier Josh, more of an angry country boy) and physically imposing when playing their god-like characters. Under Pugh's guidance, the company becomes a true ensemble, supporting and drawing upon one another to advance the story of the play — and the stories of us all. This work would bear multiple viewings, because there's much going on.
A few scenes last too long: the battle with Humbaba, a cleverly conceived construction of pipe, black drapes and video screens enlivened by Baumgardner, is impressive but it lumbers after two or three minutes.
Nevertheless, Gilgamesh in Uruk: G.I. in Iraq is a fine piece of creative alternative theater, the sort that keeps hungry Cincinnati audiences coming back for more. And that's a story worth telling. Grade: A-
GILGAMESH IN URUK: G.I. IN IRAQ, presented by Performance Gallery at the Aronoff Center's Fifth Third Bank Theater, continues through Sunday. See times, buy tickets and find nearby bars and restaurants here.