Regional Reviews: Minneapolis/St. Paul
In Toronto, Jesse LaVercombe and Ahmed Moneka play themselves, enacting their first meeting at the coffee shop Ahmed manages. Ahmed is an Iraqi refugee, expelled for his part in an Iraqi film that depicted homosexuality. As the play opens, he receives a phone call informing him that he has met the requirements for Canadian citizenship. Jesse is the shop's lone customer, an actor from Minnesota who moved to Toronto with his Torontonian ex-wife and stayed for the Canadian health insurance. He too gets a phone call, telling him that he has lost a role he was supposed to have in an upcoming Hollywood movie; in fact, he was already packed, ready to fly out to "the coast" in hopes that his life will change. As Ahmed has new doors opening for him, and Jesse has the door to his future slammed in his face, the seeds of a friendship between two men take root.
Ahmed encourages Jesse, telling him that if he really wants to be in a great movie, he should check out the "Epic of Gilgamesh." Jesse politely deflects this advice, but as he learns more about the ancient saga, he is drawn in, and the two men begin to enact the story. Ahmed takes on the role of Gilgamesh–two-thirds god and one-third human–while Jesse enacts Enkidu, a wild man who is tamed by the sensual Shamhat, who then enjoins Enkidu to go to the city and seize the throne from Gilgamesh. Gilgamesh defeats this challenger, but in Enkidu's strength and courage, he sees the companion, the friend, he had long hoped to find. Together they embark on a journey that brings them in conflict with Humbaba, monstrous guardian of the Cedar Forest, with Ishtar, the goddess of sex and death, and with the mighty Bull of Heaven.
The narrative teeter-totters back and forth, the two actors seamlessly crossing traversing the shifts in place and time. The paths they travel embrace the powers of a magic mushroom, Ahmed's impending fatherhood, Jesse's prospects as a movie actor, the nature of storytelling, and our age-old resistance to mortality. The story also incorporates music–Jesse's dexterous fingers on the coffee shop's neglected piano, and Ahmed's sweet, evocative voice delivering Iraqi songs. Behind them on stage, a band of five talented musicians provide a continuous soundscape for the play, bringing forth the sounds of the winds, the struggles, the pains, and the joys of the epic journey. They also join with the Ahmed and Jesse as an Iraqi jazz combo, providing lilting, energizing opening and closing songs that are perfect bookends for the show.
Moneka and LaVercombe are flat-out superb. They portray themselves free of artifice or any self-consciousness, revealing not their present state, but their state as it was when the show first took shape. Seeing this friendship in formation adds to the harmony with which they enact the Gilgamesh saga. We feel their intuitive collaboration not only as an act of artistry but as testimony of a friendship garnished with love and delivered with precision, but also with a playfulness that gives the show a buoyancy in spite of some dark themes, lifting the audience along with it. Director Seth Bockley guides the actors to create performances–they are not simply being themselves–without losing the intimacy of actors revealing their true lives on stage. For instance, parallel speeches in which each actor describes his first time having sex are so bracingly real, one hardly imagines that these have been rehearsed and not each of them simply responding to the moment at hand.
Production design is by Lorenzo Savoini, though the play does not have much in the way of a set, leaving the rear wall and the wings on stage exposed to the audience, with a few potted trees providing the shared ambience of coffee shop greenery and the fertile crescent formed by the Tigris and Euphrates rivers. A long table, typical of tables in coffee shops where strangers sit at intervals, pecking at their laptops, and a few chairs, serve as a focal point for the coffee shop scene, and as a pedestal on which the ageless Gilgamesh epic is enacted. Jon Brophy has done evocative work with lighting design to create shifts in tone and tension, while Adrian Shepherd-Gawinski's sound design draws on the contributions of the instrumentalists to full advantage.
The entire cast and crew are based in Toronto. Gilgamesh and the Man of the Wild was developed in a series of workshops, starting at Tarragon Theatre in Toronto, continuing at the Guthrie Lab and the Pivot Arts Festival in Chicago–all pre-COVID, and then recently at Soulpepper Theatre in Toronto, before embarking on its world premiere tour, with the first stop at the Jungle. From here the show immediately will move to La MaMa E.T.C. in New York City as part of The Public Theater's Under the Radar Festival, and then home to Toronto for a full (no longer a "workshop") production. I look forward to tracking the work's reception and progress as it travels onward.
Gilgamesh and the Man of the Wild draws on themes of the inner essence of humanity, our balance between civilized behaviors and norms, and our wilder instinct. It also reveals shifts over time and cultures in what constitutes masculinity, the nature of manhood, and the place held by friendship. It offers a window onto the overlooked saga of Gilgamesh, thought by many scholars to be the ground from which sprung later epics such as the works of Homer. It is also a wonderful display of storytelling, without need for props, costume or sets, but merely using the words and physicality of the storytellers. Add to that the fabulous musical full-band numbers that frame the show, and you have a delightful and illuminating way to spend 100 minutes.
King Gilgamesh and the Man of the Wild, a TRIA Theatre production, runs through January 8, 2023, at the Jungle Theater, 2951 Lyndale Avenue S., Minneapolis MN. Tickets: Pay as you are, starting at $10.00, suggested fair value ticket price - $45.00. For information and tickets, please call 612-822-7073 or visit www.jungletheater.com.
Created By: Seth Bockley, Jesse LaVercombe and Ahmed Moneka Director: Seth Bockley; Music Director: Demetrios Petsalakis; Production Design: Lorenzo Savoini; Lighting Design: Jon Brophy; Sound Design: Adrian Shepherd-Gawinski; Dramaturg: Guillermo Verdecchia; Production Manager: Matthew Earley; Producer: Sara Schwartz Geller; Touring Producer: Nadja Leonhard-Hooper.
Cast: Jesse LaVercombe (Jesse/Enkidu), Ahmed Moneka (Ahmed/ King Gilgamesh), Musicians: Waleed Abdulhamid (bass), Jessica Hana Deutsch (violin), Demetri Petsalakis (oud and keyboard), Max Senitt (drums, percussion), Selcuk Suna (clarinet).