Adapting the Epic of Gilgamesh may seem a task for the gods. But Neal Bell's new play, Shadow of Himself, manages to streamline the classic work—a collection of Sumerian mythology that may be the oldest surviving piece of literature—into a one-act play. The result is both a moving love story and a hard-won lesson on mortality and human limitations, and while Rabbit Hole Ensemble doesn't realize the full scope of Bell's dramatic vision, it gets it right where it counts.
Review by Jason Fitzgerald
In Shadow of Himself, Neal Bell condenses the meandering plot of the Gilgamesh source, but he keeps most of the major events. In the play, a proud half-god named "Gil" befriends a wild man, “NK” (named Enkidu in the original), who has been civilized by an encounter with a prostitute. Together they slay the monstrous Humbaba, but the encounter leads to the death of Enkidu, sending Gil to the underworld and, finally, to an encounter with the truth of his half-human nature. Bell condenses the legend's thematic scope, making it a parable about shedding illusions of immortality and embracing our kinship with the natural world. In the process, he makes he epic relevant to contemporary lives.
There is a risk that audiences of Shadow of Himself will now see the semi-divine Gil as a man with an ego problem, but Bell maintains a sense of the mythic by blending action with narration, and imbuing both with a fatalistic lyricism. These qualities, along with the play's privileging of the natural over the supernormal, make Shadow of Himself a perfect fit for the Rabbit Hole Ensemble, whose mission is to use the human body to create theatrical illusion and effects. Indeed, they prefer to ban all forms of mechanical spectacle (except for lighting design) from the stage. In this production, that means a cast of five that plays all the roles (the actors playing Gil and NK do not double) and creates every setting from the magical "Cedar Forest" to the river that leads to hell.
The aesthetic gamble does not quite pay off. There are too many moments where the sense of magic and myth, necessary for the play to succeed, seems to vanish from the room, leaving behind only a small band of actors trying to put on a play. The chanting chorus is too often silent to build a counterpoint to the main action. The actors vary their physicalities when asked to play monsters or lions, but it's often hard to distinguish one human character from the next. A subplot that Bell has created, about two soldiers who balance their desire to be masculine with their love for each other, suffers the most in this regard.
No wonder the most successful aspect of the production is the homoerotic relationship between Gil and NK. The scene where their physical enmity turns into physical intimacy—"The more I fight you the more I want to fight you"—requires nothing but emotion and stillness. Their separation, and Gil's tremendous grief in losing his friend, answer the earlier scene with a haunting silence. Emphasizing the physical and romantic love of these two figures is Bell's most significant contribution to the epic, and it raises the stakes of Gil's moral journey. In this production, the lessons he learns from his one great love leave the deepest impression on us fellow mortals.
Shadow of Himself (80 minutes, no intermission)
Access Theatre (380 Broadway)
http://www.rabbitholeensemble.com/ ($20 tickets)
Performances thru Jan 31st: Thurs - Sun 8pm
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