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Full of life, love ... and death

In just 34 minutes, the Polish company Teatr Piesn Kozla relates the epic of 'Gilgamesh' -- a tale of friendship, flood and great lamentation.

October 14, 2005|Mark Swed | Times Staff Writer

"The Epic of Gilgamesh" is old -- maybe four, maybe five millenniums old. Literature begins with it. The Canadian poet Derrek Hines calls it "the first great book of man's heart."

Yet how close to us is this tale of the King of Uruk, more god than man but still confronted by mortality. The fragmentary nature of Sumerian cuneiform clay tablets requires interpretation and, hence, inspires poets and artists. Shocking, almost, is the relevance of mankind's first epic, which comes from what was then the cradle of civilization and what is now, as modern Iraq, its cradle of uncertainty.

In fact, "Gilgamesh" uncannily mirrors changing times in even recent history. In 1988, Robert Wilson created "The Forest," an enchanted Gilgamesh retelling with engaging, ecstatic music by David Byrne, eloquent formalist text by Heiner Muller and gorgeous-beyond-belief stage pictures.

Wednesday night, as part of the UCLA Live International Theatre Festival, Song of the Goat, a spectacular Polish theater company, presented the Sumerian epic as "Chronicles: A Lamentation" at the Freud Playhouse. Here, sad song turns stunningly physical.

This is "Gilgamesh" -- which among other things tells of the great flood long before the Old Testament was written -- as grieving. The spirit of the Sumerian king who, inconsolable over his friend Enkidu's death, seeks the meaning of life, hovers not just over Baghdad but also Banda Aceh, New Orleans and Pakistan. "Chronicles" easily becomes the lament over victims of current floods and earthquakes.

Founded in 1977, Song of the Goat (Teatr Piesn Kozla in Polish) is a product of Jerzy Grotowski's Poor Theater tradition in Poland, a theater of intense inner expression. These six actors are complete performers -- capable of singing extended vocal technique, of highly accomplished dancing, of acrobatics. Beyond that, the ensemble functions as an organism, with the performers seeming to share body rhythms, able to tap into a group harmony yet break off into an exciting polyphony of song and movement. And then beyond that, each member displays extravagant individual expression.

It is, unsurprisingly, a company of obsessives. In preparation for "Chronicles," the performers traveled and studied lamentations, immersing themselves in other people's sorrows for two years.

They finally found what they were looking for in Albania. Sorrowful folk song is not only strangely compelling, but there is a tradition of fictionally embellishing the deeds of the departed. Everyone is entitled to a legend.

The epic, which is directed by Grzegorz Bral, is vaguely reenacted in song and dance and passionate actorly carryings-on. Each member has a character or personification listed in the program -- Gilgamesh, Enkidu, Ishtar (the lascivious goddess), Death, a shaman, a wild cow, Utnapishti (an immortal seer).

Still it is not narrative (which will be beyond the grasp of anyone who doesn't read the epic beforehand) upon which this production centers or will be remembered. We don't know what they sing (or even, at times, what language they sing in) as they chant their Eastern European laments in arrangements sometimes given a jaunty Minimalist, Michael Nyman-esque beat. Some text is in Polish, a little bit in English.

But as a sacramental ceremony, the effect couldn't be more immediate as the performance proceeds from ritualistic chant to extravagant movement and dance (verging on -- but never actually becoming -- cheesy). Just as the weirdly accessible, almost popish accompaniments bleed into the chanting, the movement ranges from sexy writhing to flamboyant Blue Man acrobatics to gripping table dancing.

All of this, by the way, is condensed into 34 minutes and presented in an intimate setting, with the audience in bleachers on the Freud stage. The brevity argues against storytelling. But there is just the right amount of time to maintain a continual sense of amazement. These are 34 very concentrated minutes, with life, love and death flashing by in an instant as they sear into your imagination.

Theatrically, "Chronicles" feels like a full evening. But, of course, by the clock it is not. My suggestion is to have dinner afterward. If you make a reservation in Westwood at 9, you should just about make it. And you will have plenty to talk about.


'Chronicles: A Lamentation'

Where: Freud Playhouse, UCLA, 405 Hilgard Ave., Westwood

When: 8 p.m. today and Saturday,

2 and 7 p.m. Sunday

Ends: Sunday

Price: $28 to $35

Contact: (310) 825-2101

Running time: 34 minutes

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