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Acting Out a Timeless Message of Unity


What does an ancient Sumerian legend have to say to today's youth?

"That despite differences, we can get along," said Jerry Craig, co-director of "The Epic of Gilgamesh," an environmental outdoor play for families Saturday at La Tierra de la Culebra in Highland Park, part of the Summer Solstice Festival.

With a large cast of professional and community actors, 16-foot-tall puppets requiring three puppeteers each, masks, vivid costumes and headdresses based on Sumerian drawings, a children's choir, musicians and others, the free show is part of a community arts outreach program of the Hathaway Family Resource Center, funded by a grant from the Los Angeles Cultural Affairs Department.

The center's arts facilitator, Sally Gordon, who like Craig is a theater veteran, adapted the play and co-directs.

The play, which Craig estimates will cover about a "three-block expanse" over the park's multilevel "overgrown garden setting" (wear your walking shoes to follow the action) begins in the present day with a fight between opposing gangs. As two rival gang members are wounded, they are catapulted back in time, where one is transformed into the ancient king Gilgamesh and the other becomes the monster Enkidu, whom the gods created to destroy the king.

"When Enkidu and Gilgamesh become friends," Craig explained, "Enkidu is banished to the underworld and Gilgamesh comes looking for him." In the underworld, Enkidu tells Gilgamesh, kings are slaves and battle heroes are the dead that families weep over. When the pair return to the present as themselves, they've learned a lesson in peace.

"It's for all ages," Craig said. "In addition to its message of nonviolence, I want kids to come away with an interest in the theater--they are where future theater audiences are coming from."

Unity is another message. Theater professionals will perform in the play, Highland Park schoolchildren created the scores of masks used in the show, and women at the center built the costumes.

The puppets, which serve as the alter egos of the gods, are based on those used in the famous Bread and Puppet Theater of Vermont, some of whose puppeteers will be working in the show Saturday.

"The beauty is that all these artists of different talents and backgrounds came together," Craig said, "creating something beautiful, from the puppetry to the jewelry making." That coming together "is exactly what this city is supposed to be about."

* "The Epic of Gilgamesh," La Tierra de la Culebra, 240 S. Ave. 57, Highland Park, Saturday, 2 p.m., free, (213) 257-9600.

Concert Series: The stylish children's recording trio Parachute Express will have kids and parents bopping to the beat of sophisticated harmonies and imaginative lyrics in the kickoff of Craig 'n Co.'s "Sunday Funday" family concert series, hosted by Kino from KCET-TV Channel 28's "Storytime," at the John Anson Ford Amphitheatre this coming Sunday.

The next show will star Canada's Norman Foote July 21, with his zany puppets and jazz sensibilities, plus a youth symphony. Dynamic, rockin' Craig 'n Co., backed by a 100-voice children's choir, will wrap up the series Aug. 4. Each show is at 4:30 p.m.; $7. Call (213) 466-1767.

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