A fine 'Mesh?

Old Epic, new context

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A defining characteristic of the US imperial program in Iraq, we are often told, is the resolute refusal to learn anything from history. True to the TV-weaned attention spans of our triumphant culture, history here usually means the past four years — at least before stretching to include the eerily identical adventures of the British Empire less then a century ago, let alone anything going back any further. But as Bush's recent Vietnam-Iraq comparison suggests with trusty ass-backwardness, it's not losing track of history that the current administration does so well as it is roundly and brazenly bastardizing it to suit present purposes — namely, the perennial ones of greed and power.

It falls to others without quite so much of a vested interest in conquest to actually learn from history, by which we mean something more than crudely customizing it to serve nefarious opportunities. This is part of the impetus behind Berkeley-based TheatreInSearch's exploration of the earliest of Mesopotamian adventurers: an ancient Sumerian king of way back in the BC who comes down to us via 12 clay tablets draped in legend and myth, in the guise of history's first superhero.

But what exactly can we learn from so historically remote a text? TheatreInSearch's production itself seems unsure. As if to at once employ and distance us from our own contemporary intellectual and aesthetic lenses, director George Charbak's free adaptation of The Epic of Gilgamesh (retitled here The Epic of Gilgamesh with a Long Prologue) frames the ancient hero's exploits with certain knowing modern references, including a comical couple of Beckett-like pseudo-philosophizing gadflies (Michael Green and Elias D. Protopsaltis) and, more centrally, a seemingly all-knowing, modern-day narrator (Ana Bayat).

The narrator, addressing the audience like a museum docent, literally pulls the veil from the archaic literary figure — seated statue-like at the summit of a pyramidal series of steps at the center of set designer Kim Tolman's clean, uncluttered gallery of ancient artifacts — while furnishing the title's not overly long but definitely muddled prologue. Half ironical and half indignant over her semidivine subject (played with an at times penetrating boyishness by the soon walking and talking Roham Shaikhani), she asks her audience in somewhat mocking tones to study Gilgamesh as a specimen of outrageous hubris and mindless destruction.

Rather statically staged and inconsistently acted, the more dramatic scenes get some added lift from off-stage musical accompaniment by Larry Klein on the oud. The more successful humor in the play, meanwhile, arises not from the strained (and overly intrusive) vaudevillian posturing of the two philosopher-commentators but from smart use of the text's repetitive language and its human situations.

The serious aspects of the play are less consistent. Certain characters lack adequate definition, while some scenes could do with some judicious trimming. If, as the play's narrator suggests, superheroes from Gilgamesh to Rambo (to real-life superhero manqués like George W. Bush in his flight suit) represent nothing so much as a flight from history, with its attendant lessons and responsibilities, then they deserve only our scorn. But a superannuated superhero like Gilgamesh, confronting death as man and myth together, would seem to provide other opportunities.

In this respect, our narrator is far from a reliable one. Perhaps intentionally (though in truth text and performance are too confused to really say), her one-note "modern" perspective is itself being held up for critique, as if to demonstrate the pitfalls of too superior an attitude to barbarisms past and present.

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