Shadow of Himself
nytheatre.com review by Michael Criscuolo
January 25, 2009
In Shadow of Himself, playwright Neal Bell re-tells the story of Gilgamesh with updated modern sensibilities: a contemporary plotline concerning the back-and-forth exchanges between two nameless soldiers sits next to the primary one, which focuses on Gilgamesh and his companion Enkidu (re-named Gil and NK here, respectively); disembodied voices call out Gil with taunts like "Let him be audited! Let him have a root canal!"; a woman refuses sexual intercourse with Gil with this salty brush-off: "Fuck yourself. You're closer." Each of these moments is individually humorous and engaging, but cumulatively they're superfluous. In his desire to emphasize the parts of Gilgamesh's story that are thematically relevant today—the corrupting influence of hubris, the extremes to which unchecked aggression will make men swing—Bell's added-on dramatic devices make it seem as if he doesn't trust his source material, even though it's got all the elements he's looking for. Despite a vigorous and well-executed production by Rabbit Hole Ensemble, Shadow of Himself undercuts itself throughout.
The original story tells of a legendary mythical leader named Gilgamesh who is half man and half god. Accordingly, he thinks he's a big shot. He assumes, because of his half divine heritage, that there is no man alive who can best him on any front. However, Gilgamesh soon meets his match in Enkidu, a wild man who rivals him in every arena. Together, they become friends and light out for the territories looking for adventures and testing each other's boundaries. When Enkidu dies while battling Humbaba, the beastly guardian of the woods, Gilgamesh's anguish brings him down to earth (existentially speaking) as he learns how his arrogance has shaped his existence.
That story pretty much plays out as is in Shadow of Himself. Gil is a strutting cocksure rooster whose overbearing confidence blinds him to the fact that no one likes him. NK starts out as a wildebeest whose power Gil fears, so he sends a woman into the forest to tame him. But her amorous affections turn NK into a man instead. Later, after NK dies, Gil realizes that he has experienced true friendship, perhaps for the first time in his life, and the absence of it crushes him. His solution: a lonely quest for meaning and immortality that eventually leads him to the sole human survivor of an ancient global flood (a clever nod to the epic of Atrahasis).
Bell positions his two unnamed soldiers—who are sometimes, inexplicably, in Gil's employ, and other times unquestionably more modern—as symbols of man's inhumanity towards one another. Soldier 1 constantly seeks approval from his counterpart while Soldier 2 hurls an unending stream of insults and hatred. It seems as if the point Bell is trying to make is that warfare constantly shifts men's identities into archetypal roles: bully, sycophant, coward, protector, hero, villain. In other instances, the playwright compares Gil's penchant for intense challenges—say, for instance, his desire to find a challenger who can best him—to contemporary examples like an S & M fetishist looking for a beating. While both devices make their points well enough, they aren't necessary. Gil's story is strong enough to make the play's themes resonant (there is a reason, after all, why Gilgamesh lives on after 4,000 years). Furthermore, the author's devices detract from (and, in some cases, trivialize) the story's inherent potency.
Nevertheless, Rabbit Hole Ensemble does an admirable job trying to activate Bell's text. Their signature low-fi approach suits the material well. The actors, adorned only in t-shirts and khakis, make all the necessary sound effects themselves and perform on an otherwise bare stage. It's up to director Edward Elefterion and lighting designer Kevin Hardy to create the physical parameters of each of the play's locations and, as usual, they do a bang-up job. Shadow of Himself gets a visceral shot of moody atmospherics thanks to Hardy's lights, and Elefterion's story theatre-influenced staging is imaginative and evocative.
The five person cast is equally splendid. Matt W. Cody nails Gil's conceited, jaded entitlement, and charts his subsequent emotional fall convincingly. As NK, Mark Cajigao makes a good foil, providing the yang to Cody's yin, and complementing his co-star quite nicely. In a variety of other roles (including the aforementioned soldiers and the gruesome Humbaba), Emily Hartford, Daniel Ajl Kitrosser, and Adam Swiderski all shine, changing personas sometimes faster than one can blink. All five actors flesh out the production with impressive physicality and humor.
Shadow of Himself is a well-intentioned effort by Bell that falls short of its mark. But, as a vehicle for Rabbit Hole Ensemble, it's another feather in their cap.