This week, the Jungle Theater premieres “King Gilgamesh & the Man of the Wild,” an original reinterpretation of the world’s oldest written story that parallels the lightly fictionalized life stories of the two actors and co-creators.
Co-written by Ahmed Moneka, an exiled Iraqi filmmaker and actor; Minnesota actor Jesse LaVercombe; and St. Paul-based director and playwright Seth Bockley, the show was intended to premiere in 2021 but was rescheduled due to COVID-related issues. Now, Twin Cities audiences finally have the opportunity to see the maiden voyage of “King Gilgamesh” before the show travels to New York City for the Under the Radar Festival.
Audiences not familiar with the “Epic of Gilgamesh” need not fear, because the dialogue sets up the basics pretty quickly. The epic follows the mythical tyrant king Gilgamesh, who reigns over Uruk, a city in ancient Mesopotamia. He encounters a wild man named Enkidu who is sent by the gods to overthrow him, although Gilgamesh wins the battle. Before finishing the deed, Gilgamesh sees in Enkidu not an adversary but a friend and equal, and together, they go on to defeat monsters, defy the gods, and find that, despite all their brave deeds, they are still plagued by their humanity.
Running parallel to the original epic bromance is the contemporary story of Jesse and Ahmed, two men from very different, yet not-so-different worlds. Jesse and Ahmed are played respectively by Jesse LaVercombe and Ahmed Moneka, and the plot that follows them is rooted in the true story of their unexpected friendship. Jesse (the character, not the actor), a white Jewish actor from Minnesota, meets Ahmed (the character, not the actor) when he receives news that he now has permanent residence in Canada after being exiled from Baghdad for portraying a homosexual character in a film and showing it at the Toronto Film Festival.
The story is partially true. The real-life Moneka was exiled for playing a gay character in film, and he stayed in Canada, where he met LaVercombe in Toronto. They became fast friends and supporters of each other’s artistic works, and that story forms the basis of the modern-day plot line. These are two people from different parts of the world who come together in friendship.
Moneka and LaVercombe decided to co-create a show and brought in Seth Bockley to complete an artistic trio. Bockley, an expert in literary adaptations for the stage, assures audiences that the team has worked diligently to do more than regurgitate the original myth, but to relate it to modern audiences.
“Part of my philosophy of adapting is that I want the audience to have the experience of the source materials in a direct, unadulterated way. I want direct encounters with the text and I love how theater can activate classic texts and re-enchant them with the oral storytelling tradition and literally bring them to life,” says Bockley.
Part comedy and part adventure tale, the 100-minute, one-act show also contains elements of a coming-of-age story as the two grapple with what kind of man they want to be.
Ahmed and Jesse aren’t obvious parallels to their ancient mythological counterparts. Jesse isn’t a wild beast man who was seduced by a mythical prostitute, and Ahmed isn’t an evil demigod-turned-hero. But the human elements of their stories keep the ancient and modern connected. (For the sake of simplicity, I’ll refer to the stage characters as Ahmed and Jesse, and to the writer-actors as Moneka and LaVercombe.)
Their quests involve overcoming grief, facing unexpected fatherhood, undergoing career setbacks, and confronting the fear of failure, both personally and professionally. Gilgamesh and Enkidu wonder if they can defeat their own mortality. As we follow the early years of their friendship, Ahmed and Jesse wonder if they’ll achieve success as fathers, artists, and friends.
My main takeaway from the performance was that Moneka and LaVercombe have so much heart as performers and writers. From the moment they walked onstage, made eye contact, and fist bumped across a table, I could tell these were artists who whole-heartedly supported one another and were happy to perform together.
The switching between characters is an entertaining choice. It may feel disjointed at times, and the place where audiences may most feel lost is the moments when Moneka and LaVercombe switch back and forth between mythical and modern. The lighting will usually indicate the character change, and Moneka and LaVercombe make distinct body language choices. Moneka sits up regally and moves his arms deliberately when Gilgamesh is explaining the human experience to his new friend, while LaVercombe adopts a wider, lower stance to indicate Enikdu’s wild origins.
Discussing the themes of the show, Moneka explained to me that “conflict is the beginning of communication.” There’s a scene where Jesse, who has seemingly gotten his big Hollywood break and is co-starring in real-life actor and playwright Jeff Daniels’ action movie about the Second Iraq War, is asked to improvise lines. Jesse’s panicked improvisation draws from previous conversations with Ahmed about the death of his grandfather and the Second Iraq War. Jesse baring his soul in the workplace is one of his shining moments in the play, while Moneka breaks the tension with comic relief and grounds the scene with his portrayal of Jeff Daniels. Through that conflict, they learn essential things about each other and themselves.
Another highlight from the show is Moneka Arabic Jazz, a five-piece band whose sound draws from music traditions rooted in the Middle East, Africa, jazz, and the blues. While still workshopping the show, this element was added last year. This production illustrates how all people, regardless of time and place, have things in common, and the band is a testament to that message. The musicians come from Turkey, Canada, Greece, Iraq, and Sudan, and are making their American debut this week at the Jungle. In addition to padding out the dense dialogue, the band starts and ends the show with a song, and the audience seemed to really enjoy it.
Like music and epic stories, “King Gilgamesh & the Man of the Wild” is an example of how something can bind people across space and time. I’d argue that Ahmed and Jesse are much more compelling characters than Gilgamesh and Enkidu, partially because their onstage chemistry when playing themselves is great—the comedic timing, especially—but also because these characters’ goals and fears will resonate most with audiences. As can be expected when performing excerpts from their own lives, both actors display admirable vulnerability that tugs at the heartstrings.
The show’s themes are inherent to its production, as well: Without relationships between people from all over the world—who somehow managed to find kindred spirits—this play wouldn’t have been possible. That, in and of itself, is almost miraculous. The fact that it’s a hilarious and heartwarming play is further evidence of the magic of collaboration.
As LaVercombe puts it, “So much has changed over the past 5,000 years since this story was first written, and some things have not changed at all. I think less has changed than what we sometimes think when it comes to human emotion and human storytelling, and I think people will relate to that a lot.”