In the thirteenth century A.D. there was Rumi and Shams. In 2700 B.C. there was King Gilgamesh and Enkidu. The heroes, Rumi and Gilgamesh, were civilized masters of their domain, enjoying a small greatness in their time. Shams and Enkidu were untutored outsiders who burst in from the wild to become the heroes’ beloved companions. The same extraordinary spiritual upheaval created by the unlikely friendships launched both Rumi and Gilgamesh out of their time and into legend.
George Charbak’s play, The Epic of Gilgamesh with a long prologue, thankfully ignores the Enkidu-Shams comparison. In fact Enkidu’s god protector is simply referred to as the sun god, sidestepping the god’s real name Shamash, the root for the Arabic word Shams.
The play takes a few moments, however, to update the ancient epic with current events. There are references to the Iraq war—the city of Uruk where the epic begins is in Iraq. Also, in the early scenes, Gilgamesh displays George Bush’s demagoguery in his abuse of the word “terror.” But soon the story’s universality and timelessness overwhelms local concerns.
The most dramatic scene in the play is commanded into being by Bella Warda (Ramazan-Nia) as the goddess Ishtar. Though there is no intermission in the one hundred minute dramatic marathon, Warda’s “hell hath no fury..” rebuke of Gilgamesh effectively splits the play into two acts: the hero’s triumphs before he spurned Ishtar’s sexual advance, and the sorrows he endures after that.
Ishtar’s frustration with Gilgamesh ultimately leads to Enkidu’s death. The loss of his beloved friend transforms the hero from Aristotle’s “speaking animal” to a conscious human being aware of time and mortality. Roham Shaikhani, who plays the handsome Gilgamesh, is all instinct and appetite in the first act. His eyes widen innocently at pleasure. His spry movements full of the confidence of youth. But in the second act Shaikhani’s sensuous bulk is harpooned and bleeding. Gilgamesh no longer adventures for glory, his quest is now for immortality.
Shaikhani and Warda admirably carry the weight of this difficult play. But director Charbak has too heavily burdened Hayedeh Doroudi-Ahi with the role of Enkidu. In the epic, Enkidu is a man-beast of Sasquatchian build, whose roar makes the beasts of the forest cower . Yet Doroudi-Ahi is a slight mezzo soprano with delicate and charming Persian vowels. Why Charbak has Jane playing Tarzan is a question the director must know his audience will explore.
The choice of a woman for the role of Gilgamesh’s male friend creates interesting complications. An absence is felt of a romance between Enkidu and Gilgamesh. If they are so intimate, why don’t they get together? A traditional casting would have brought out the hue of homosexuality sometimes implied in the Rumi-Shams relationship. Is this is what Charbak wished to avoid? Unlikely, because with Enkidu as a woman, her sex scene with a temple prostitute-- played by Samera Esmeir—has now become a lesbian love act.
Some clever comedy by Babak Mokhtari comes to the rescue. Mokhtari plays the messenger sent by Gilgamesh to offer the prostitute to Enkidu in order to tame him/her. In his role as pimp, Mokhtari is so excessively voyeuristic that the audience feels chastised in even thinking about gender affairs that are only the characters’ business. The comic reproach goes a long way; a couple of scenes explicitly call for nudity, yet no one on stage takes their clothes off, and the audience is too intimidated to complain.
Gilgamesh’s quest for immortality ultimately leads him to Utnapishtim, the literary predecessor to Old Testament’s Noah. Michael Green, who plays Utnapishtim, is one of the actors who appears as several characters throughout the play. His demeanor as a biblical patriarch does much to reinforce the sense of ancientness in the narration.
Ancientness brings me to the reason for this review. The Epic of Gilgamesh with a long prologue is an entertaining work that need not suffer analysis to be enjoyed. But when I came home from the show I read a recent article about a 6000 year old archeological site in Qom that has been bulldozed to make room for a construction project. The friend who forwarded me the article prefaced the email with, “There probably was once a Persian Gilgamesh standing on the steppes of this site raging against the gods.”
Here in Berkeley California, Gilgamesh is daily resurrected in a theatre on Ashby street. There in Qom Iran, our ancient rage against the gods is consciously buried along with all the other corpses in that city. Some places it is easier to find immortality.