I went into the new production of “Gilgamesh” by Constellation Stage with some trepidation, because in the past few months I have seen productions of ancient poems or texts (“An Iliad” and “Metamorphoses”) and come out less than impressed. This show re-tells the epic poem of Gilgamesh, the half god, half man king who is an oppressive leader and his relationship with the primitive man Enkidu that the gods create as his equal to distract him from his oppressive ways. I was ultimately unsure if the concept of modern re-telling of these stories was just something that didn’t appeal to me as a theatre goer, or was something missing in those previous productions. Gladly, I can say that “Gilgamesh” succeeded where those two productions failed. The easiest example to point too is the representation of water. In Metamorphoses the stage is literally a pool of water and, to me, it felt like a gimmick to bring cohesion to a show that had no story to bring together the tales they were telling. In “Gilgamesh” they had the epic poem of Gilgamesh they were telling and that drove the production forward. There is a moment in the show where Gilgamesh is crossing a river as his boat is ravaged by the wind and water. This was accomplished without a pool of water on stage, but rather through the well choreographed movements of the actors on stage representing the wind and water. It was a more effective device and more engaging than the similarly told story of Alcyone and Ceyx in Metamorphoses, where the actor portraying Poseidon is literally picking up the actor portraying Ceyx and throwing him around the pool of water as his boat is destroyed. And that is where “Gilgamesh” ultimately succeeded, it’s use of movement whether it was the choreographed fights, action sequences, or clothed sex scene. The performance and movement drew you into the action taking place on the stage and told the story just as much as the dialogue did.
This isn’t to say that this production was flawless. That isn’t entirely fair, it wasn’t so much a flaw of the production, but my own trepidation about the source material. The dialogue is from an ancient poem and is not delivered as if it were modern English. There is a haulting quality to the dialogue, along with the use of what appears to be sign language accompanying words like Gilgamesh and king as the story is being told. This dialogue decision is understandable, but makes the show more than simply entertainment. I would equate it to seeing a Shakespeare play without knowing the story going into the production. As an audience member you are forced to really listen and work at figuring out the story and what is said. It can still be an enjoyable theatre going experience, but it isn’t like sitting down and just absorbing the dialogue and action that is taking place on stage. Considering my instincts going into the show with respect to the inherent issues with performing a translated ancient text, Constellation Stage’s production of “Gilgamesh” was a success.