“I am a man,” Enkidu says. “What is a god, without man?” Such questions of mortality and divinity drive Constellation Theatre Company’s ambitious new work Gilgamesh.
The ancient Mesopotamian myth “The Epic of Gilgamesh” tells of a violent ruler who, after losing his soul mate, sets out on an epic journey to bring new life back to his friend. In the process he learns humility and faces his own mortal limits.
Known for epic adaptations, Constellation attempts a sensual spectacle in Gilgamesh; but no particular element creates a consistent enough tone to hold interest throughout the show. We smell incense, we hear drums, but we never become fully invested in the characters. Gilgamesh’s journey is one to observe rather than join.
As an ancient epic, the context of the piece is unfamiliar to most audiences and can be disorienting without a strong sense of place. It needs consistency in dialogue and clear rules for how the mythical world works. Instead, the poetry by Pulitzer Prize winner Yusef Komunyakaa comes across as muddy and repetitive. It lacks the specificity needed for an audience to understand and relate to the hero’s tale.
The hackneyed dialogue would benefit greatly from humor; but the show lacks jokes even in moments that would easily lend themselves to a relieving chuckle. As a result, the seriousness with which the actors take themselves feels more like a burden on the audience than a building of tension.
As Gilgamesh, Joel David Santner appears to struggle with the awkward text and lack of narrative direction. His performance is laudable, however, for its effort and sincerity, especially without rich dialogue to back up his motivations. As his best friend Enkidu, Andreu Honeycutt shines, though in another underdeveloped and difficult role to play.
The show’s rich score by Tom Teasley lends Gilgamesh a consistent musical tone throughout and serves as a highlight from beginning to end. Costumes by Kendra Rai also help support the story and provide character insight where none other is given.
Ultimately, Gilgamesh proves the daring energy of Constellation. A two-hour epic is difficult enough to stage, but even harder when telling one of the oldest stories in existence. Many companies fail with much more simple goals. In this case, the production doesn’t go deep enough or offer enough emotional heart to carry us along with its heroes.
But difficult journeys are worth taking, as much in the theater as in ancient Mesopotamia. Sometimes they don’t go as planned, but where would we be without heroes to try them?
Constellation Theatre Company’s Gilgamesh performs through June 2nd at Source Theatre. Source Theatre is located at 1835 14th Street NW Washington DC 20009. Closest Metro stop: U Street/African-Amer Civil War Memorial/Cardozo (Green/Yellow line). For more information call 202-204-7741.