The wooden staircase you climb to get to the Bushwick Starr theater has more character than some entire plays. You’re rewarded for the climb—through January 30, anyway—with a strenuous, rewarding journey through the ancient Sumerian-Akkadian Epic of Gilgamesh, one of the earliest works of literature in history. Sumerian legends told of a semi-divine hero-king, Gilgamesh, who tyrannized his subjects in the city of Uruk until they pleaded with the gods for help. In response they created Enkidu, a primitive man of great strength who lived in the forest with the beasts until being seduced by a temple harlot into coming to Uruk to be a companion to Gilgamesh.
The Akkadian tablets tell of the pair’s adventures, Enkidu’s death, Gilgamesh’s mourning, his further adventures, and his eventual return to Uruk a more civilized ruler. It also recounts the flood story from which the Biblical story of Noah probably derived. The ancient stories touch on eternal human themes: friendship, family, love, sex, fear, bravery, pretty much the whole lot. I can’t remember where I first read about the Epic of Gilgamesh—probably in some adolescent fantasy-fascination literature, Erich Von Däniken or some such—but I went right out and bought a paperback translation, to live on my shelf with my Tolkien and E. R. Eddison and Hebrew Bible. I never expected to see Gilgamesh and Enkidu and their gods and goddesses on stage. Let alone in Bushwick.
But here they are, and a fine lot too. The Forge enlisted eleven playwrights to each adapt one of the eleven main tablets for the stage. Director Gabriel Shanks, together with a solid cast and a talented production team, stitched them together into a real theatrical epic. The shifts from one playwright’s voice to the next can be heard, usually subtly but now and then joltingly. As the company presumably intended, these shifts add to the effectiveness of the episodic story, offering changes in tone (elegiac and hilarious, solemn and boisterous, cerebral and physical). The program’s trendy reference to the production as a “remix” is going a bit far; though it takes liberties with details of characterization and setting, in outline it hews to the story as written, and properly so. Audiences aren’t terribly familiar with the Epic of Gilgamesh, which therefore doesn’t seem to call for radical reinterpretation. Much of the staging here feels as if it could have been transplanted from, say, Greek drama. I suspect, though, that on a second viewing, once familiar with the story, one would better appreciate the multiple creative points of view.
A different actor plays Gilgamesh in each “tablet,” all ably, while Enkidu remains in the sure hands of the very physical actor who goes by the name of Eugene the Poogene. Cherrye J. Davis is notably authoritative as the jealous goddess Ishtar, and KT Peterson has a fabulous time with the role of Shamhat the temple priestess/prostitute. But the whole ensemble is strong, and despite Eugene’s frequent key presence and consistent physicality—he even switches to another role late in the proceedings—and the numerous scenes with just a couple of characters, the whole thing has the flow of an ensemble piece.
It’s a little long (there’s no intermission), and it has a couple of moments that feel too “teachy” and one or two that smack of acting-class floor exercises. But those are tiny quibbles about a fascinating, original, and extremely well done production, worthwhile both as theatrical experience and for immersion in a story most of us know barely, if at all—but should.