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Friday, June 26, 2015

Good Grief

The Epic of Gilgamesh
Directed and designed by John Sowle, Bridge Street Theatre, Catskill, June 20

BEFORE GOD, THERE WAS GILGAMESH. His story is one of the oldest known narratives, with many of its elements echoed in later sacred and secular epics. The Epic of Gilgamesh tells the story of the friendship between the title character, a demi-god king who has been oppressing his subjects, and the half-wild man created to reign in the monarch’s excesses.

Photo by John Sowle
As dramatized by John Sowle, at its heart is the experience of grief. As performed by Steven Patterson, it’s the grief we all have shared and will continue to share, his own manifestation of it so searing that to witness it is to feel again every sense of loss you thought you’d gotten past.

This Epic of Gilgamesh is a solo show for Patterson, and he inhabits the story with a commitment that makes every fantastic element seem real and of the moment.

Based on a verse translation by Herbert Mason, the poetry of the text is beautifully rendered by Patterson, in such a way as to make the moments he describes all the more memorable—which is where poetry and skilled acting are (but aren’t often enough) at their most magical.

We discover the actor in a sajdah position, facing a small flame. He is dressed in a white cotton kurta and pants. He is barefoot. “It’s an old story, but one that can still be told,” he tells us, so charmingly that we’re drawn into his confidence right away.

When he introduces Gilgamesh—when he becomes Gilgamesh—he has moved upstage center, taking a regal position, and everything about him becomes commanding, especially his voice, which is unexpectedly even more resonant. When he becomes Enkidu, the wild man, he has moved downstage and sits in a crouch, his voice also more wild.

And we meet many more characters along the way, each given just enough of a characterization by the actor to leave us with the impression that the stage was filled with performers.

Patterson’s skill goes way beyond the parade of personalities he creates. His movements are fluid, rhythmic, serving the moment but also creating a sense of motion that helps propel the narrative. And his voice is a musical instrument—several musical instruments, going from reedy oboe to a cello’s plaintive song as the poetry demands.

Act one, covering eight of the eleven ancient tablets that passed the story to us, shows us the bonding of Gilgamesh and Enkidu—brought on, in classic style, by a fight that neither can win. Vladimir Nabokov thus described a similar scene: “We rolled all over the floor, in each other’s arms, like two huge helpless children. . . . We rolled over me. They rolled over him. We rolled over us.” It’s the coming-together of the incompletes, the joining of ego and id, but it’s too-often doomed by persistent flaws.

Gilgamesh and Enkidu join forces to destroy Humbaba, menacing monster of the Cedar Forest; after Gilgamesh rejects the advances of the goddess Ishtar, he and his friend defeat the Bull of Heaven that she has dispatched in revenge. But it’s all too much for the other gods, who cause the death of Enkidu.

“His friends had left him in a vast aloneness he had never felt before,” is a comment from the first half that foreshadows Gilgamesh’s journey in the second. The lighthearted moments are gone; the mood is grief’s despair. Underscored by deftly chosen soundscape effects and some fragments of music by Philip Glass, Gilgamesh’s mission to recover his friend from the underworld is punctuated by moments of tear-inducing self-torment. “The only nourishment he knew was grief . . . It can go on for years and years—and has for centuries,” the narrator-voice tells us.

But the seemingly inflexible figures Gilgamesh meets are susceptible to his emotions, such as the Scorpion Woman, who sends him through the Tunnel of the Sun, a walk in darkness that must finish before the sun returns.

The big story of this section is the flood, the catastrophic punishment-from-the-gods. Utnapishim was told by one of the gods to build a boat, on which he and his family and a whole bunch of animals survived. It’s an unexpectedly static moment in the piece, but the story itself hums with so much tale-telling resonance that it remains fascinating.

Gilgamesh is denied the secret of eternal life: “What have you known of loss that makes you different from other men?” It’s the fate, of course, of us all, and the virtuoso presentation of this timeless saga reminds us why this story has woven its way through so many subsequent classics. All unhappy families turn out to be pretty much alike.

Metroland Magazine, 24 June 2015

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