As the oldest known story on record, "Gilgamesh" has been interpreted and reinterpreted endlessly throughout the ages, its universal lesson set down in cuneiform and eventually transposed to dozens of other languages and media.
Mark Twain's often repeated adage that there is no such thing as a new idea might be just as pervasive as the epic itself, but in a fresh production of "Gilgamesh," the New Phoenix Theatre conveys a sense of the ancient in what must be completely new, multifaceted and ultimately thrilling ways.
The show was a collaborative effort of seven actors and artists, all of whom play various musical, dramatic and technical roles, including a shared responsibility for the direction of the show. Though there's a valid concern about how well the narrative itself is served by such an unconventional directorial approach, the resonance of the aesthetic product taken alone is undeniably deep and epic.
The play generally follows the standardized version of the story, in which the mighty and tyrannical King Gilgamesh, who rules the ancient Sumerian city of Uruk, is forced to realize and embrace the weaknesses of his human form. After various transgressions, the gods send a wild man named Enkidu to temper Gilgamesh's power-mongering nature. In the New Phoenix's interpretation, Gilgamesh and Enkidu fall in love, but tragedy descends from the skies when together their power reassumes its tyrannical nature and they must suffer harsh consequences.
Though the roles in the show are not necessarily meant for delineation, the brain of Franklin LaVoie is chiefly evident in the painstakingly intricate design of the show's set, puppetry and masks. What results is a strange and addictive vibe unique to LaVoie's creations that is simultaneously seductive and disturbing, thoroughly entrancing and often darkly humorous.
As the play opens, we see two trees shaped like scraggly hands grasping toward a miniature Tower of Babel. In front of that sit two screens, upon which several scenes of intricate shadow puppetry occur throughout the show. Further up toward the audience, the walls of the ancient city of Uruk cordon off the front of the stage, and serve as a venue for traditional puppets. Often, these two separate elements of puppetry occur simultaneously with live actors wearing detailed and oversized masks, creating an encompassing visual effect that draws the audience into a fantasy world far larger than life.
Scenes of choreographed movement are juxtaposed beautifully with puppetry and simple lighting effects to create wonderfully strange figures and shadows.
Ultimately though, the play's unique and seriously edgy visual approach doesn't mesh with its straight-ahead narration, delivered by Kevin Cain. In terms of the narrative, it might have worked better as a dance piece without text, or at least with radically modified text. In this production, however, the narration -- a perfectly serviceable piece of writing -- is too greatly overshadowed by the other elements of the show to add to it significantly.
Drama playing through April 28 in New Phoenix Theatre, 95 N. Johnson Park.
For more information, call 853-1334 or visit www.newphoenixtheatre.com