Held at The Public Theater’s flagship building at Astor Place and five partner venues, Under the Radar Festival is a highlight of the winter arts season in New York City, spotlighting the best of experimental theater from artists around the world. The 18th annual edition of the festival runs from January 4 to 22 and features 36 productions, ranging from full on orchestrated epics to introspective monologue stints. TV and City will be attending and covering several Under the Radar shows.
By Aharon Nissel
Fans of the original Ancient Babylonian epic will realize that this adaptation of the Epic of Gilgamesh takes some liberties with the original plot line. Most notably, this version leaves out the last few tablets of the original, which include a flood myth that has long been compared to the Biblical story of Noah. But this is understandable, given that it’s hard to compress over 3,000 lines of Akkadian poetry into a snappy 90-minute show, especially when there’s a contemporary storyline woven throughout.
“King Gilgamesh & the Man of the Wild,” which opened last week at La Mama theater as part of the Public Theater’s Under the Radar Festival, combines the four-thousand-year-old epic with a modern bromance between a Jewish white aspiring actor and an Iranian filmmaker in a cafe in Toronto.
Ahmed (Ahmed Moneka) is an Iranian filmmaker who fled to Toronto to escape persecution in response to his starring in an LGBTQ-supportive film. He now works in a coffee shop in Toronto and is anxious about his girlfriend’s pregnancy. Meanwhile, Jesse (Jesse LaVercombe) is an aspiring actor, who, in the first few minutes of the show, loses a gig he thought would blast him to Hollywood stardom. Ahmed suggests that Jesse read the Epic of Gilgamesh, which Jesse does, in the cafe bathroom, emerging a few minutes later to discuss the story with his new friend.
The show then jumps to the epic. Ahmed is now King Gilgamesh and Jesse is now Enkidu, a beast-human hybrid who lives in the jungle. After Enkidu is “tamed,” he and Gilgamesh become friends and go on heroic adventures, flexing their might and power.
As the dual plotline unfolds, bouncing back between past and present, modernity and myth, the audience is left to consider the relationship between the two stories. There is something incredibly human about the notion that thousands of years ago people developed a story about the very same themes contemporary artists are exploring. For example, much artistic creativity nowadays is directed towards exploring complex, intersecting and often contrasting identities. Ahmed is a Muslim Iranian and Jesse is a Jewish American, yet they both find themselves in Toronto. Though it manifested differently, storytellers thousands of years ago were also, in a way, concerned with hybrid identities: Gilgamesh is part God, part human. Enkidu is part beast and part human. How do disparate people, with radically different identities and life experiences, find points of connection and navigate very real points of tension?
The two actors are joined by the thrilling Moneka Arabic Jazz band, a Toronto-based Arabic-maqam/ jazz band. The band accompanies the characters throughout the dual plot line, contributing a soundtrack that flows from upbeat, to tense, to dramatic, to joyful.
Overall, this delightful performance is an emotionally charged and highly entertaining show, full of tender moments of friendship and genuinely humorous moments. A firm reminder that we have much to learn from texts of old.
‘King Gilgamesh & the Man of the Wild’ concluded its run on January 22. Find more information HERE.