New World Performance Laboratory’s premiere of Gilgamesh: He Who Saw Everything elicits a wide range of moods, from brutality to sensuality and sheer loneliness.
Gilgamesh is about a demi-god who, after great loss, travels to the underworld in an attempt to achieve immortality. The story follows both his physical journey and his transformation from a cruel, egotistical ruler into a being finally able to love.
The experimental theater company NWPL has journeyed with this work off and on for four years. This cerebral troupe — co-artistic directors James Slowiak and Jairo Cuesta and actors Debora Totti and Justin Hale — has delved into the ancient Sumerian tale’s underlying truths, “refining the work, finding the right vehicle for our expression of the Gilgamesh myth,” director Slowiak said preceding the performance Saturday night.
Those truths have to do with man’s place in the universe and his destruction of the Earth’s resources, as illustrated by the hero and his friend’s destruction of sacred trees on Cedar Mountain.
In this tale, known to be humanity’s oldest written story, Gilgamesh, king of Uruk (modern-day Iraq) is such a despot, the gods create the wild man Enkidu to distract him. The priestess/prostitute Shamhat seduces Enkidu in an effort to tame him and bring him to Gilgamesh. Enkidu and Gilgamesh fight each other and then become fast friends.
They go on destructive adventures before the gods decide to punish them with Enkidu’s death. Gilgamesh wanders the desert in grief and ends up meeting the immortal Utnapishtin in the underworld in an effort to outsmart death.
In NWPL’s production, Justin Hale creates a believably brash, conceited Gilgamesh, out of control with sex and drugs. Totti is alternately wild, sensual and wise as various goddesses, and Cuesta’s roles range from the hotblooded Enkidu to the quietly sage Utnapishtin.
Song plays a big part in setting the mood of this thoughtful piece. Hale and Cuesta play guitar and Totti plays tambourine as the three actors sing bluesy American roots music. The musicianship is raw, but it works.
As Gilgamesh continues his soul-searching, the cast repeatedly sings the refrain “Won’t somebody tell me? Answer if you can. Won’t somebody tell me, what is the soul of a man?’’
NWPL’s carefully honed physical style has one character knocking another off his chair as well as a depiction of rape. The violent-looking moments have been carefully choreographed to look real yet keep the actors safe.
The play is for mature audiences only. The nudity is handled in a subtle manner, occurring behind a curved back wall with cutouts where one of Totti’s characters washes and changes costumes.
A minimalist set features a table and chair, a universal symbol from which the company enacts various stages of life. Among the few props are buckets of water where characters wash their faces.
This small company has worked together for so long, they know how to breathe as one when telling a story. NWPL, which is celebrating its 20th anniversary in its current season, was founded by Slowiak and Cuesta in 1992. Totti joined the company in 1998 and Hale in 2004.
Because Totti plays multiple goddesses and priestesses, one wishes that all of her characters’ names were listed in the program. This production also assumes that theatergoers have a basic knowledge of the story of Gilgamesh, so reading an online synopsis beforehand is a good idea.
Some of the key dramatic moments must play out solely in viewers’ imaginations, including Enkidu and Gilgamesh’s slaying of the monster Humbaba and their destruction of the Bull of Heaven, sent down by the goddess Ishtar as revenge for Gilgamesh spurning her. Part of the story involving the challenge of the Seven Stone Wheels also is unclear.
Given that this epic tale unfolds slowly, its ending felt abrupt. The characters suddenly switch back into their identities as actors and it is announced that the gods have denied Gilgamesh his request for immortality.
The final threads of the story feel like they’re left hanging, but the journey NWPL takes us on is nevertheless an intriguing one.
Arts writer Kerry Clawson may be reached at 330-996-3527 or firstname.lastname@example.org.