We know D.C. Get our free newsletter to stay in the know.

You can’t accuse Constellation Theatre of lacking ambition. Almost a full year before Arena got Metamorphoses, the relatively tiny company was the first local outfit to stage Mary Zimmerman’s visually rich take on Ovid. It hasn’t narrowed its vision, either; this season alone, Constellation has swish-swooshed through Zorro and tripped through Alan Ayckbourn‘s farce Taking Steps, and over the years, it’s become a reliable wellspring of epic tales vividly produced.

The troupe’s latest show, Gilgamesh, gives us the legend of the Sumerian king who ruled present-day Iraq sometime around 2500 B.C. Gilgamesh’s story is easily fascinating enough to justify a dramatic interpretation (and he’s still riling up archaeologists, who in 2003, reported that they may have located the guy’s grave). It doesn’t hurt that the work was adapted for the stage by Yusef Komunyakaa, the 1994 Pulitzer winner for poetry, a titan of verse who hails from Louisiana.

In the Epic of Gilgamesh, the king is portrayed as two thirds god, one third man; a monarch who erected the city walls of Uruk with his bare hands. But while Gilgamesh may be a physical specimen of brawn and agility, he’s later undone by the loss of his soul mate Enkidu, a warrior raised by animals.

Unfortunately, right from the first scene, something about this Gilgamesh smells a little stinky—-and it’s not the stench of the Euphrates.

Perhaps it’s the show’s Legends of the Hidden Temple-like set. Or the costumes straight out of the Adam West-era Batman. Or, more plausibly, a problem with tone.

Gilgamesh is derived from poetry, yes, and there’s nothing wrong with a tale of rape, murder, opulence, and fantasy told to a smart modern audience—-as Studio Theatre did this past winter with their stripped down, one-man An Iliad. But Gilgamesh attempts hokey without humor, and seriousness without substance, making for an exhausting two-and-a-half hours.

Under the direction of Allison Arkell Stockman, we get a seemingly endless series of Stuff That Happens to Gilgamesh (fights, lots of grunting; love scenes, lots of grunting). The gist is that our hero sets out from home and encounters all manner of magical beasts and spirits—-some ridiculous, like the Scorpion Man and Scorpion Woman, who wear miniature scorpions on their heads, click their guitar-pick-like claws and hiss, “I can see into your heart!”—-before finally returning. But even when the second act deals extensively with Gilgamesh’s slow crawl back to the throne following the sudden slaying of Enkidu, we’re given nary a single plausible reason to care what happens to him or anyone else.

Poor Joel David Santer (King Gilgamesh), who for most of the play is asked to wander around as coherent and “poetic” as Jim Morrison on peyote in Oliver Stone’s The Doors, donning Vanilla Ice-like stripes in his hair, saying things like, “Your breasts are succulent as ripe fruit.” It’s a testament to the cast’s bravery that they invest so much in their performances, no matter how silly they must be. (Respect must be paid to the the red-eyed Bull of Heaven, embodied by Ashley Ivey and Manu Kumasi, who gingerly jump around in the style of Chinese New Year dragons; and Jim Jorgensen‘s Humbaba, keeper of the Cedar Forest, who seems like he’s trying to keep a straight face in a tree getup straight out of The Wizard of Oz.)

A fascinating distraction comes from musician Tom Teasley, who scored the soundtrack and sits ever-visible on the side of the stage, intensely immersed in chanting, playing the keyboards, drums, kalimba, seemingly absorbed in his work, yet unintentionally contributing to the strangeness all around him.

The cast isn’t without its standouts, namely Andreu Honeycutt as Enkidu, who delivers a fine performance in a bad role: He’s presented as a kind of Mesopotamian Encino Man, whose coarse language and ascent to popularity and power seems about as plausible as when Brendan Fraser did it. Also doing constructive work is Katy Carkuff, who brings strength and intelligence to the many roles she inhabits, particularly a clumsily presented “seductress” who dances and sings, “When I laugh, the laughter comes back to me.”

That very well may be true, but does anybody remember the laughter?

The play runs to June 2 at Source. $20-$35.

Photo by Brittany Diliberto