Immortal: The Gilgamesh Variations
nytheatre.com review by Ed Malin
January 22, 2011
Immortal is the story of Gilgamesh, the ancient Sumerian epic tale that has always had something for everyone. The story was retold by all the empires of Mesopotamia and was used to give a pedigree to their civilizations. So, it should be only natural for The Forge to want to reinvent the story. The twist is that 11 award-winning playwrights are involved in the telling of Immortal. This is to correspond to the 11 tablets on which the epic was recorded when it was rediscovered by modern archaeologists. The presence of the voices of Barry Rowell, Erin Browne, Charles Borkhuis, Leonard Madrid, Barbara Lanciers, Gretchen Michelfield, Juanita Rockwell, Jeffrey James Keyes, Jane Ann Crum, Gabriel Shanks, and Kay Mitchell is truly refreshing. If you don’t like the style of a particular scene, have no fear, the next one will be entirely different. Fortunately, they all succeed in my book. For example, in the Humbaba segment by Erin Browne the male leads turn into macho gunslingers out to kill a helpless forest “monster” for political purposes.
When I said the story has something for everyone I was thinking of its themes. Is it better to be a human or a wild animal? Is there anything in life more important than friendship? Will we ever have control over death? Will men ever see how much they are disrespecting women? Will we be punished for destroying the environment? Gilgamesh, half-divine king of the city of Uruk, meets the wild man Enkidu and they become best friends. Their adventures include slaying the monster Humbaba and the Bull of Heaven. When Enkidu dies, Gilgamesh tries to understand his own existence by crossing the desert, outrunning the sun, and meeting the supposedly immortal Utnapishtim. The latter, an analog of the biblical Noah, builds a raft to survive a great flood. In the end, Gilgamesh realizes that nothing lasts forever.
The Forge’s fantastic ensemble actually rotates the role of Gilgamesh for each scene. A new person—men and women of all races—puts on the arm band of the king of ancient Uruk in each episode, making the epic tale smack much less of “patriarchy” than, say, the works of Homer. The frank sexuality of the times is an added dimension. The sacred, well-respected temple prostitutes of the cult of Ishtar (such as the strong and proud one portrayed by KT Peterson) are heroes in this story, there to show humanity why life is worth living. Ishtar is played with great style and soul by Cherrye J. Davis. Enkidu, a tattooed, hairy, and sometimes naked character, is given much life by Eugene the Poogene. Catherine Porter (co-founder with Barry Rowell of Peculiar Works Project) is brilliant as the innkeeper who makes Gilgamesh try and fail to write love poetry. The rest of the cast is great too, although we spend less time with them.
Gabriel Shanks’s direction uses the cast of ten sometimes as a chorus, sometimes as the walls or environment, and shows us the power of love and throws in lots of powerful fight scenes. Allen Cutler’s sets include the multi-purpose floor and walls with ancient cuneiform symbols, and highlight each episode, as in the “Cedar Motel” segment consisting of floating motel signs and a desk carried by different actors. Christian B. Carey’s music combines the exotic and minimal aspects of gamelan and krautrock to effectively emphasize the peaceful and warlike aspects of the story. Erik C. Bruce’s lighting tenderly brings us through cities and wilderness, the realm of the gods and the desert. Anne Liberman’s costumes take us into a much warmer climate, and give a novel stage presence to the Bull of heaven and various demons.