The Mesopotamian poem The Epic of Gilgamesh, widely believed to be among the world’s oldest surviving pieces of written literature, tells the story of King Gilgamesh and his wild friend Enkidu (NK). To adequately stage the Gilgamesh saga, which includes god-kings and bestial creatures, opulent palaces and apocalyptic floods, lush wilderness and foreboding underworlds, a production would need either a Broadway-level budget or the solidly minimalist production aesthetic of the Rabbit Hole Ensemble. The Brooklyn-based group, which describes its work as “strong stories, told simply and theatrically, without much technology,” is well suited to the task of depicting the ancient story onstage. Under the direction of Rabbit Hole Artistic Director Edward Elefterion, Shadow of Himself, playwright Neal Bell’s Gilgamesh adaptation becomes a sharply poignant meditation on masculinity and friendship.
As per Rabbit Hole’s signature style, the five-person cast creates much of the production’s effects, from reciting chants and beating a small drum to forming scenic structures with their bodies, which enhances Shadow of Himself’s mythic nature. Whenever they are not central to the action, the actors’ presence along the sides of the bare black stage further supports the production’s spirit of collective storytelling.
Each of the male actors portrays a single primary character, while Emily Hartford, the sole actress of the cast, plays a smattering of female roles. Adhering to gendered casting in a production that emphasizes the versatility of its ensemble focuses the story’s epic scope to issues of gender, specifically of male power and the impact it has on companionship. The main characters include Gil (Matt W. Cody) the powerful king, and NK (Mark Cajigao), the only individual who matches Gil’s strength and beauty. Prior to the arrival of NK, in keeping with the Gilgamesh story, Gil is an unrepentant rapist who terrorizes his subjects until he finds his match in NK, at which point the two become best friends who travel the world on epic quests. It’s literally the stuff of legends.
Shadow of Himself echoes the relationship between Gil and NK with a pair of soldiers (Daniel Ajl Kitrosser and Adam Swiderski), a fun and effective means of examining friendship in different forms. Though neither relationship becomes explicitly sexual, both are alternately (and sometimes simultaneously) violent and tender. According to the mythology, Gil is part god and NK is part beast; in Shadow of Himself, their otherworldliness manifests itself in elevated language. This sets up a contrast between them and the more mundane soldiers, who call each other dude like Bill and Ted, and throw around the f-word like Rod Blagojevich. Similarly, the soldiers are more cognizant of sex than are Gil and NK. Once the business of raping brides comes to an end, Gil and NK are too focused on their love for one another to become embroiled with women.
Yet if the relationship between Gil and NK isn’t consummated, it’s not exactly platonic either. They may be too gallant or too naïve to consciously sexualize each other, yet they fall asleep in each others’ arms and cannot imagine a life apart. When their inevitable separation occurs, the play’s focus on coping with loss emphasizes the depths of their friendship.
The actors bring a disciplined sense of commitment to embodying specific characters while creating the effects that bring the world of the play to life. Still, at just an hour and a half, the production feels overlong. It’s easy to see where the story is headed, a common challenge of staging archetypal legends, and though the actors do their best to keep the energy up, the unchanging austerity so central to the production eventually grows repetitious. Though occasional prop pieces, designed by Michael Tester, add welcome flourishes, audiences who prefer lavish productions may want to wait for the upscale production value version of the Gilgamesh story before they see its depiction onstage; fans of epic legends and energized experimental theater should see Shadow of Himself.