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Babylon seven Seven actors, and an epic to tell

Call it the New Phoenix Theatre's reality show.

In a formula strikingly similar to MTV's "The Real World," the theater has assembled a cast of seven performers, picked to act on a stage, work together, and create a stage version of the ancient Sumerian epic "Gilgamesh."

"You see seven performers who are faced with the fairly considerable challenge of bringing this 4,000-year-old myth to life through their own resources," said New Phoenix Artistic Director Robert Waterhouse. "And they get out there at 8 o'clock, and then they do it. That's the show."

On the challenge of working with seven artists with seven distinct visions, Waterhouse said, "Sometimes it's fun, and sometimes it's fiery, but the fire is what makes the play."

Though there is directorial guidance from Waterhouse as well as the theater's puppeteer and set designer, Franklin LaVoie, many elements of the show come from the cast members themselves. The result, Waterhouse said, is an organic confluence of visions that produces a completely fresh dramatic take on one of the oldest stories ever discovered.

The epic Babylonian poem "Gilgamesh" tells the story of a king (Gilgamesh) whose tyrannical nature displeases the gods. Since Gilgamesh himself is two-thirds divine, the gods make various attempts to rein in his abusive nature, and in the process Gilgamesh comes to realize his human weaknesses and less heroic attributes.

The story is open to any number of modern interpretations, from analogies of overzealous imperialism to parallels LaVoie sees with modern psychological disorders.

"You have all the elements of narcissistic personality disorder and also many of the elements of nature-deficit disorder," LaVoie said, referring to Gilgamesh's preoccupation with himself and his addiction to the power of controlling his environment. "I was just stunned that they could have seen this 4,000 years ago. But it certainly makes sense, because this is the cradle of civilization, where they start building huge walls, creating armies and creating the dominator economic society."

"Nature-deficit disorder," LaVoie said, is a modern disorder somewhat related to attention-deficit disorder, in which individuals in cities or elsewhere block themselves off from nature. When Gilgamesh tears down the vines and rebuilds the wall surrounding the city of Uruk, LaVoie said, he is essentially blocking nature out of his environment.

When the wild-man character Enkidu -- a part animal, part man creation sent by the gods to temper Gilgamesh's tyrannical ways -- becomes sick, Gilgamesh's human side emerges more and more. That, LaVoie said, is akin to patients with personality disorders, in which "the mask comes off and they finally admit to the emotional struggle they're having."

Each of the cast members has made unique contributions to the new version of the play and will play multiple roles throughout the show. There's Gina Lachacz, who wrote the text of the production; Januar Ciel, who choreographed the show; and Paul Kozlowski, who composed and will perform an original score on instruments hand-made by himself and LaVoie. Lenny Ziolkowski, an actor trained in mime; Elvi Jo Dougherty, a shadow puppeteer; and actors Kevin Cane and Jeannine Giffear round out the cast. Each member was also involved in creating masks and in crafting the flow of the story.

e-mail: cdabkowski@buffnews.com

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PREVIEW

WHAT: "Gilgamesh"

WHEN: Opens Thursday and runs through April 28

WHERE: New Phoenix Theatre, 95 N. Johnson Park

TICKETS: $20 general, $15 students and seniors

INFO: 853-1334 or www.newphoenixtheatre.com

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