Entering the Ashby Stage for George Charbak’s TheaterInSearch production of the (very) ancient Mesopotamian epic of Gilgamesh, the spectators see a seated, veiled figure, sculptural, atop a model ziggurat, surrounded by gaping masks of bearded Assyrians on the back walls, as strains of the oud (evocatively played by Larry Klein) resound through the hall.
“I put Gilgamesh into a museum,” Charbak has remarked. This is immediately evident when a kind of docent, kind of redactor (Ana Bayat) appears, posing as many questions in crisp BBC intonation as putting this (literally) Ur-tale, a modern discovery (and translation, with the deciphering of cuneiform), into a not-so-comfortable but very wry context, as she unveils the figure of our hero (Roham Shaikhani), “one of the very finest pieces,” who begins to animate himself like a statue come to life, with the crazy glint and skewed gaze, relentless histrionic gestures and grimace of an actor caught in the nitrate emulsion of silent film (our own modern “antiquity”), like a prehistoric horsefly in amber.
Calling Gilgamesh an epic poem—“or tragic joke”—the narrator-docent credits the eponymous hero with the invention of cuneiform, religion, god (or at least an integrated pantheon!), science, literature, lit crit, porn—and the relationship between literature and immortality ... “The man who saw everything, who looked in the face of a mystery [as the still-seated figure of Gilgamesh glares, with one finger lifted] ... He was beautiful and strong, they said ... and because he was from the gods, he crushed his own people, who were left wondering, whispering about his own words.”
With a clap of the hand, “his own people” (Michael Green and Elias D. Protopsaltis) appear, an ongoing, polymorphous burlesque team (out of Beckett or Pinter), deadpanning their way through the drifts of “the snows of yesteryear”—viz., ancient tragedy, an incomprehensible sensibility they handily convert to modern angst and colloquial wit.
Gilgamesh wrangles with everybody, especially his recondite and smothering mother, Ninsun, who interprets his dreams of a rival and/or boon companion, who falls into his life like a star, disturbing his work (“This means he’ll never abandon you.”).
Bella Warda, cofounder of Oakland’s Darvag Theatre Company, plays Ninsun deliciously, later doubling as the seductive and jealous goddess Ishtar, who does away with Gilgamesh’s boon companion she can see only as rival—two heroic lads stuck on each other with schoolboy crushes.
(It’s good to be reminded that there were originally jealous female deities where later the self-proclaimed masculine Els and Allahs would dominate, again, the silent film histrionics are cleverly tipped in and voiced, backdating and outdoing DeMille.)
Enkidu (a wild-eyed, preoccupied Hayedeh Doroudy-Ahl) eventually appears as the primitive dream-companion, and Babak Mokhtari humorously bores a reclining prostitute (Samera Esmeir) with preBiblical extravagance, exhorting her to seduce the wild man, distract him so that his animal companions will abandon him.
A funny, stylized sex scene follows, and all goes according to plan, ending with Gilgamesh and Enkidu fighting to the death—that is, until they become captivated with each other.
This excursion into the deepest past that can be given a voice literally becomes an excursion, as the two buddies take a road trip, overcoming monsters and slaying the bull from the skies, which Ishtar has inveighed the sun-god to turn loose.
After Enkidu’s demise at the invisible hands of the goddess, Gilgamesh in grief embarks on a journey to discover where the dead go, what happens in the wake of mortality, and is seen as “a beggar! A tramp! A hobo!” by Green and Protopsaltis’ revolving mechanicals. He’s let himself go so (clearly, he’s forgotten the tips his mother gave him once for the perils of the road), gets drunk and cries on the shoulder of a very sympathetic innkeeper (Esmeir again), with whom he dances before losing “the rose that erases anguish, the rose of his youth,” filched by a passerby.
The languid web of words that shuttles back and forth with humorous insouciance over this disturbing tale of domination undercut by mortality strikes contemporary chords, especially chiming with the discordant sounds of set declarations on the media—and often referring to the “land between two rivers” and its neighbors.
But Charbak—who has “insisted” his players “make the words their own,” adopts a not-quite so ancient irony regarding myth (in every sense of the word), an irony that dates back to the Socratic dialogues of Plato, resurfaces in Islamic poetry, and was the guiding light of the Renaissance and Enlightenment, never making a one-to-one identity between the stage and the world (as represented on other, equally staged media), making his Gilgamesh paradoxically original yet older-than-old shoe.
Whether it’s Enkidu, dead, telling his grief stricken friend the ultrabanal result of dusty mortality, or Gilgamesh himself exclaiming to his taped and cheering populace, “I want to be famous--but I already am famous, am I not? I have decided to last forever ... I need weapons!” or who “slaughtered all the trees just to hear the sound” behind him—his most ancient of stories ends in splendid ambiguity: “You who hold in your hand the meaning of life—what is this? Another riddle? ... Why is this man knocking at the doors of history for 5,000 years? Why?”
The Ashby Stage, 1901 Ashby Ave.
8 p.m. Fri.-Sat., 2 p.m. Sun. Through Sept. 2. Tickets $12-$20. 262-0584.