In the “Special Thanks” section to Piper Mckenzie’s rich new production of Babylon, Babylon, writer/director Jeff Lewonczyk thanks (among others) Robert Altman, The Blue Man Group, Herodotus and the writers of the Old Testament. Never before has a piece of information in a playbill so succinctly summarized the content of the show on stage, because Lewonczyk’s opulent Mesopotamian happening, currently running at the Brick Theater, synthesizes the best aspects of those four influences with notable ease. The transformed Brick Theater simulates the ancient Temple of Ishtar in Babylon, where about a dozen devoted female worshippers have come to pay their respects to the goddess of fertility and war – hopefully before the invading Persian army breaches the city walls and makes slaves of all Babylonians. But Ishtar worship isn’t really like any other kind of worship. The ritual involves a female waiting for a male suitor to approach and offer a coin. Then the pair retreat to the “Holy Ground,” where they pay their respects to the fertility aspect of Ishtar’s personality in a quite appropriate manner. Never mind that many of these women make reference to being married; in these different times Ishtar worship seems to trump all other forms of romantic communion.
Lewonczyk’s play occurs all around the audience in real time. As Babylon, Babylon’s 33 cast members mill about, we shift focus between their various conversations. While unique personal reasons have brought these women and men to the Temple of Ishtar on this historic occasion, each story provides subtle distinctions on the themes of sexuality, death and destiny in the ancient world. The High Priestess of the Temple agrees to hide her disguised cousin, the fearful Prince of Babylon, in the Temple until the war is over. Another girl is desperate for her little sister to lose her virginity in the Temple, so it will not be taken by an invading Persian rapist. One female devotee of Ishtar comes back to “worship” several times during the play, very eager please either her goddess or herself. Midway through we meet Enheduana, a recently reincarnated “Seeker of Vengeance” with a grudge against Ishtar and her Temple. Her arrival and actions eventually resolve the play, dragging everything into complete, brutal entropy.
In writing, the piece sounds like very heavy material, but Lewonczyk and his team have created a sort of party atmosphere. For the most part the material plays with dark humor and humanity, tempered occasionally with ominous strains of ancient myths retold or hints of Babylon’s bloody prospects peaking through the Temple door. Often there is music, chanting and reserved dancing when the cast imparts one of the many ancient myths, like Ishtar’s descent into the underworld and my favorite, her battle with warrior-king Gilgamesh. While the lighting and scenic design were both a little sparse for my taste, Julianna Kroboth’s stunning costumes and the overall attitude of the piece created a persuasive atmosphere. Fight director Qui Nguyen’s brawl at the end deserves much respect, simply for the amount of bodies and moving parts involved.
No one in the massive cast stands out as distractingly hammy or bad. While I won’t run down the roll call, there was generally an impressive naturalism at work in the acting. These characters aren’t historical caricatures; they are simply people – desperate, devoted or just seeking distraction. As the High Priestess and circus ringleader, Hope Cartelli displays much aptness to both seduce and devastate. Fred Backus brings a particularly enjoyable jerkiness to Timgiratee, a jilting lover. Lewonczyk himself plays Logios the narrator with much charm. And as I said before, Adam Swiderski and Aaron Baker’s cheesy, super-heroic take on Gilgamesh and Enkidu is most entertaining.
Swiderski, in fact, plays an important triple role in the proceedings. As Gilgamesh, he represents the tragic mythological hero of the old style; as Zuuthusu the doomed old man, Swiderski represents the helplessness and weakness of the Babylonians' present predicament; and as Tom Kazanski, a modern day American soldier stationed in Iraq (just 50 kilometers from the ruins of Babylon), Lewonczyk uses Swiderski to make the final assessment of the region’s destiny. The inclusion of the time-lost (or hallucinating, whatever) soldier could have been an aggravating attempt to shoehorn modern politics into the piece. In Lewonczyk’s hands, though, it is merely a reserved observation: why has there always been war in “The Cradle of Civilization?”
The chatty, flashy, legendary, holy party that is Babylon, Babylon might not answer that question, but it sure has a lot of fun asking it.