Zack Snyder’s just-released film, 300, is a hit — a flashy, fleshy, violent account of the Battle of Thermopylae, during which 300 Spartans tried to defend themselves against a bazillion marauding Persians. Curiously, while 300 was setting national box-office records, two local theater companies were preparing productions of ancient works originating from the Middle East (Gilgamesh at Pasadena’s Theatre @ Boston Court) and from Greece (Orestes Remembered: The Fury Project, spun from Aeschylus’ Agamemnon and presented by Ghost Road Company at Santa Monica’s Powerhouse Theatre).
That 300 captured the hearts (and $70 million in its first week) of American moviegoers offers a view into the deepest recesses of our national psyche. Though Gilgamesh and Agamemnon have very different structures from each other, they both stand in opposition to stories like 300. They show not just the glory of the battle, but how wars of conquest become attached to endless cycles of violence and tragedy. Life is a fleeting visage, these stories suggest. We can never be too sure of what’s really going on. The most we can do is love our families, love life, and keep our heads down.
This is not the message you’ll take home from 300, which is about the virtues of honor, duty, glory and combat. The movie is based on Frank Miller’s five-issue comic book published by Dark Horse Comics in 1998. These kinds of stories — which run from taming-of-the-West myths (in which straggling pioneers wanting just a plot of land and a cow to graze on it survive hostile tribes on the prairie) through that metaphysical American, Superman, and beyond — have always done well in Hollywood because they tap the essence of America’s Higher Purpose. We freed slaves and opened markets. We liberated Auschwitz. We spread capitalism and democracy to the Philippines, put our people in charge over in Iran and down in Central and South America. We even nuked Japan, and God blessed us with ever more power and prosperity. With a history like that, how could Superman not embody the unchallenged, blissful simplicity of our rectitude and resolve?
Stephen Mitchell’s translation of the Sumerian poem “Gilgamesh” (adapted by co-director Stephen Sachs) derives from the oldest written text we know, a fable based on the life of a despotic king who ruled circa 2700 B.C. The poem itself was composed about a millennium later, and the 11 stone tablets on which it was inscribed were unearthed in what’s now southern Iraq in the mid-19th century. And though “Gilgamesh” concerns what it means to be human, it could be said to be about the conflict between comics and literature.
Gilgamesh (DeObia Oparei), whose mother was a goddess (Fran Bennett), is the kind of king who — just to show who’s in charge — sleeps with virgins on their wedding night while the groom waits in the next room. Prayers by the people of Uruk for intervention are answered with the arrival of Enkidu (Will Watkins), carved from clay and living naked and untamed in the forest. A sex goddess (Cynthia Boorujy) seduces him, and their union civilizes and humanizes Enkidu so that he can enter polite society. In this production, Enkidu steps into Gilgamesh’s view just as the king is about to deflower yet another virgin. Enkidu challenges Gilgamesh, and the king likes that, accepting Enkidu as a brother. Both actors are buff — one is black, the other white, ego and alter ego, superhuman and subhuman. After a bout of wrestling reveals their matched strength, Gilgamesh gets the idea to travel with Enkidu into the Cedar Forest to slay a sleeping monster.
Why, you may ask? To prove he can. In the program notes, dramaturge Scott Horstein suggests that this is the first recorded preemptive strike. Enkidu has grave trepidation about messing with sleeping giants, but in the heat of battle, when the (offstage) monster is mortally wounded and begging for his life (in voice-over), it’s Enkidu who goads Gilgamesh to cut off the beast’s head. This is where the comic-book version, playing inside Gilgamesh’s mind, screeches to a halt, and the epic takes over, ridiculing Gilgamesh’s hubris and teaching him a thing or two. Shortly before expiring, the monster spits out a curse that Enkidu should suffer a painful death. You don’t just decapitate a monster of your choosing, then walk away. On his continuing adventures, Gilgamesh must endure the monster’s prophecy, then the fear of his own mortality, a futile quest for eternal youth and profound introspection on the purpose of life.
Sachs and Jessica Kubzansky stage a robust, physical production in front of Uruk’s city wall, well spoken by the actors. Sea travel across the waters of death is depicted with a prop boat and billowing silks. For all such classic storytelling techniques, there remains a subtle distance between the audience and the show, which may be a curse of having such a lavishly equipped intimate theater. As with the Taper, it’s as though the space itself demands opulent production values, rather than this production’s silk and video-projection minimalism, or it feels just a little bit emptier than it should.
Also very close, but not quite there, is writer-director Katharine Noon’s gorgeous and almost flippant spin on Agamemnon. She calls it Orestes Remembered: The Fury Project, and a devoted ensemble has developed it for the better part of a year. The extent of that devotion shows up on the stage and makes this production a must-see. Noon staged related works in 2001: Clyt at Home, based on the woes of Clytemnestra and her kids waiting for her hubbie, General Agamemnon, to return from the Trojan Wars; and Elektra-La-La in 1995, a study of Clytemnestra’s infamous daughter.
In the legend, Clytemnestra is livid because Agamemnon sacrificed their daughter, Iphigenia, in exchange for favorable sea winds. She and her lover off the general upon his return, provoking their skittish son Orestes (Ronnie Clark) to stab his own mother. Now, in this production, Orestes is haunted by three furies (Kelsey Barney, Julie Lockhart and Cathy Carlton) — here attired in high heels and carrying handbags, like aunties from a Jerry Herman musical.
I’m not convinced the creators understand the power of this ghost story — of the penetrating way it questions the virtue of “justice” that’s cloaked in vengeance. Watching Clark’s Orestes slide down the razor blade of his torment has a horrific appeal, yet Noon and company give equal weight to putting Orestes on trial in a democratic election, which ends in a tie, and is therefore resolved by the goddess Athena (Brian Weir). They’ve got Macbeth in their hands, yet they feel compelled to supplement it with what could be taken as an ironic comment on the scandalous 2000 U.S. election. Such an election is in the ancient legend, and there’s no reason to lose it. Like a sloppy shirt, it simply needs to be tucked in, so that the two stories are part of the same classical suit.
Maureen Weiss’ lovely set packages the saga in miniature via a kind of foldout suitcase that embodies the diminished, ramshackle House of Atreus. The characters presume they’re larger than life, that they can take justice into their own hands, while crouching to get through the damn door. Even the gods who drop in for a card game have to suffer through it. It’s very funny.
In 300, the aggrieved, brave Spartans unintentionally look quite stupid. Gilgamesh and Orestes Remembered are stories largely about the folly of such heroic posturing. Taken from ancient appeals for wisdom and compromise among testy neighbors, they certainly pertain to a contemporary world that’s growing smaller and hotter.
GILGAMESH | Adapted by STEPHEN SACHS from a new translation by STEPHEN MITCHELL | At THEATER @ BOSTON COURT, 70 Mentor Ave., Pasadena | Through April 8 | (626) 683-6883
ORESTES REMEMBERED: The Fury Project | Written and directed by KATHARINE NOON | Presented by Ghost Road Company at the POWERHOUSE THEATRE, 3116 Second St., Santa Monica | Through March 31 | (866) 633-6246