They may have the oldest bromance in recorded history, and you can watch them spar with a supernatural bull in Constellation Theatre Company’s bold and colorful, if somewhat over-solemn, “Gilgamesh.”
Dramatizing the celebrated ancient Middle Eastern epic, this world-premiere production conjures up — among other mythic events — the forging of an improbable friendship between the title character, a swaggering tyrant, and a mysterious figure named Enkidu. As they wander through a spirit-haunted landscape in director Allison Arkell Stockman’s staging, the pals cross paths with the vicious Bull of Heaven. Gilgamesh gives a ferocious war cry, and battle is joined.
A gorgeous capering puppet with glowing eyes and shimmering silky flanks, the bull gores Enkidu (Andreu Honeycutt), the horns seeming to sink in so deeply that Gilgamesh (Joel David Santner) has to pull the animal away by the tail. Weapons flash, and eventually the spooky cow dies. (Matthew McGee is the puppet designer, and Ashley Ivey and Manu Kumasi manipulate the Bull.) Exhausted, Gilgamesh and Enkidu fall asleep, side by side, on the ground. It’s the first time we have seen the swashbuckling monarch look vulnerable.
The relationship between Gilgamesh and Enkidu — a relationship that mellows and humanizes the king — injects a current of poignant feeling into this visually snazzy piece of theater, the first full staging of a published verse play by the Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Yusef Komunyakaa and dramaturg Chad Gracia. “Gilgamesh” boasts the kind of design touches that have distinguished other Constellation offerings: Kendra Rai contributes resplendent bright-hued costumes for the divine and mortal characters, and musical wizard Tom Teasley has again composed an evocative, percussion-heavy score, which he performs live onstage.
But amid the pageantry, the production gains valuable emotional ballast from the poised, cogent performances by Santner and Honeycutt. The former segues artfully from imperious thuggishness to rough-hewn cordiality to suffering stoicism. And as Enkidu, who is part-man and part-animal, Honeycutt radiates a regal mystique, endearing us to the character without overexplaining him.
Enkidu, curled up on the ground, is the first figure we see on Ethan Sinnott’s elegant sand-colored set, whose cuneiform-peppered panels evoke the tablets on which the Gilgamesh legend was recorded as far back as 2100 B.C. After the Woman of Red Sashes (Emma Crane Jaster) lures Enkidu away from his wild existence, he teams up with Gilgamesh to loot the Cedar Forest, patrolled by the menacing guardian Humbaba (Jim Jorgensen, seemingly dressed in bark). After subsequent skirmishes with supernatural forces — including the sultry goddess Ishtar (Nora Achrati in stunning gold drapery) — Gilgamesh ventures, Orpheus-like, into a realm beyond death, seeking a recipe for immortality.
Although stocked with arresting lyricism, Komunyakaa and Gracia’s text packs a little too much tidy moral into the mystical adventure tale. Adding extra earnestness to this production are the solemn, choreographed hand gestures the actors sometimes execute when concepts such as “dream” (a fist at eye level) and “God” (splayed fingers) crop up in conversation. Presumably, the device is intended to suggest the characters’ reverent, archaic mind-set, but the effect is ponderous. Overall, “Gilgamesh” lacks the humor that helped make another Constellation spin on ancient epic, “The Ramayana,” so exhilarating.
Katy Carkuff does lend sprightly flirtatiousness to the character of Siduri, the “barmaid at the brink, between worlds,” who teaches Gilgamesh about love. In turns that are equally striking but more serious, Achrati, Carkuff and Kumasi embody a council of Elders: ominous figures in robes and metallic masks.
By the time he returns to his kingdom, Gilgamesh has learned enough about loss, mortality and impermanence — not to mention friendship — that he could serve as a wisdom-dispensing elder himself.
Wren is a freelance writer.
Poetry by Yusef Komunyakaa, concept and dramaturgy by Chad Gracia. Directed by Allison Arkell Stockman; lighting design, Klyph Stanford; fight direction, Casey Kaleba; properties design, Rebecca Dieffenbach; production dramaturg, Jefferson Farber; choreography, Emma Crane Jaster; assistant director, Gwen Grastorf; technical direction, Jason Krznarich. With Charlotte Akin. Two hours. Through June 2 at Source Theatre, 1835 14th St. NW. Call 202-204-7741 or go to www.constellationtheatre.org.