Soulpepper & TRIA Theatre/King Gilgamesh & The Man of the Wild, created by Seth Bockley, Jesse LaVercombe and Ahmed Moneka, directed by Seth Bockley, Young Centre, July 25 to Aug. 6. Tickets available here.
Soulpepper is advertising King Gilgamesh & The Man of the Wild as part of its Summer of Song series, but in reality, it is more a play with music than a concert, and enchantingly so.
At the heart of the piece are two friendships that cunningly parallel each other, and kudos to the creators, Seth Bockley, Jesse LaVercombe and Ahmed Moneka, for finding that intriguing connection.
In the present day, we have LaVercombe and Moneka who play themselves, using aspects, both fictional and actual, from their own real-life friendship. In the play, LaVercombe is a troubled American actor who meets equally troubled Iraqi immigrant Moneka in a Toronto coffee shop that the latter runs.
The two also portray King Gilgamesh (Moneka) and Enkidu (LaVercombe). It is Moneka who attempts to help LaVercombe put his life in perspective (and by extension, his own), by telling him the tale of King Gilgamesh and his friend Enkidu. The arc of the play swings between the two realities, when events trigger the parallel connections.
The Epic of Gilgamesh is the oldest story ever recorded, written in cuneiform on clay tablets in ancient Mesopotamia (present day Iraq) around the 11th century BCE. Simply put, it is a tale of a journey taken by King Gilgamesh, and orchestrated by the gods, who create Enkidu, a former wild man/beast, to accompany the king on his travels, and help him move from tyrant to benign ruler. In the present day story, Moneka and LaVercombe also go on journeys where they have to face their own demons.
The play manages to also touch on some profound themes, most notably, the many aspects of friendship. Gilgamesh is more than just a clever parallel of the ancient and the modern. When it is over, you realize that substantive questions have been raised about how we see our lives in relation to the world at large.
The music figures into the mix by the presence of Moneka Arabic Jazz band who play the cinematic score that underlies the text. The five very talented musicians occasionally get to perform solos, with Moneka breaking out into song from time to time, while LaVercombe shows his chops on the piano.
The musical idiom is a gorgeous fusion of Arabic-maqam and jazz. Maqam, the dictionary tells me, is a traditional mode of Arabic music, and the result of the mix is simply stunning. Just imagine melismatic singing layered over jazz riffs.
As for the performers, both Moneka and LaVercombe are absolutely captivating.
Moneka is a tremendously talented actor/singer who invests his role with an intensity that burns up the stage. For his part, LaVercombe displays amazing physicality through a body that is so supple as to be without bones. He can also act up a storm. Together, they have such vitality and energy, that there is never a moment of Gilgamesh that does not rivet the eye.
The piece is brilliantly directed by Chicago-based Seth Bockley who understands that less is more. He was part of the creation process so he knows when to highlight the scenes of high drama, and dial down the action when needed.
Lorenzo Savoini has created a simple set of a table and two chairs, which act as both part of the coffee shop, and the various terrains encountered by Gilgamesh and Enkidu. Savoini is also responsible for the atmospheric lighting that bathes the entire stage, the surrounding walls, and the line of musicians, in many hues, depending on the mood of the action.
Between the acting, the storytelling and the music, every moment of King Gilgamesh & The Man of the Wild lifts off the stage to create a most satisfying theatre experience.
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