Shadow of Himself

Duke Theater Studies
Shaefer Theater
Through April 15

The jagged, fissured and partially oxidized plates of Amir Ofek’s tectonic set suggest a map of a foreign continent, as they jut upward at an uneven angle from the floor of Duke’s Shaefer Theater. On it, two creatures sweat in the low light as they desperately wrestle for supremacy. As they roil across the floor, N.K., the one caked in mud, is on top for a moment, before the bald one, Gil, briefly takes the same position. Wordless grunts and cries punctuate the silence of their battle. The advantage changes, and changes again.

A fight to the death? Not hardly. Ultimately, we learn the battle we’re witnessing is, if anything, the very opposite.

It’s tempting to call Shadow of Himself an alternativeand clearly existentialmystery play: a story about how our species became more human, in a time long ago. It’s nearly as tempting to say we’re still in the middle of writing it. No doubt a part of this feeling arises from the verbal upgrades playwright Neil Bell gives his uncanny new adaptation of the epic of Gilgamesh, now on stage through April 15.

The earliest surviving records of this Sumerian tale place its origins prior to 2000 B.C., making it one of the oldest recorded stories in the world. Nonetheless, Bell juxtaposes its events with a catalog of contemporary ills recited by a chorus, as well as dialogue from both modern-day soldiers and the more hazardous borders of sexual psychodrama. If these updates jar the ears at first, the ease with which they they soon fold into the tale reinforces one of Bell’s darker, central points in this retelling: just how far we haven’t come in more than 4,000 years.

In Jody McAuliffe’s plangent staging, Aaron Marco’s Gil is something of a self-styled warrior, demigod and king. Though he’s the strongest of his kind, his rule is still barbarous, characterized by the endless unrest of conquest and the violent, systemic subjugation of his city’s women.

These injustices continue until the appearance of Michael Ayers as N.K. (short for Enkidu, in the original text), who has lived among the animals. Since his strength and cunning is equal to Gil’s, the two are destined to meet. When they do, the aforementioned wrestling match ensues. In its aftermath, the two seemingly evolve into individuals somewhat closer to this era than their predecessors.

Bell and McAuliffe appear to read the ancient text as saying that men cannot become fully civilizedor more so, at any ratewithout several things. They must have the friendship (and the limiting influence) of other men. There has to be the fellowship, the love of equalshere, of the same gender. They have to sustain close contact with the natural worldand with it, a sense of their finiteness, their limitations. And once those boundaries have been established, men have to push against them to the very boundaries of their intelligence and strength.

Some may quibble that wrestling with what it means to be a fully civilized man is ultimately not the same conflict as the one represented in the press material for this production”wrestling with what it means to be human.” Let them reflect on this. Both history and present events strongly suggest that humanity has little chance of survivalmuch less achieving its full potentialunless its men are fully civilized. The current conflicts and the historical record both argue that this goal hasn’t yet been universally achieved.

With that the case, Shadow of Himself ultimately seems a text about the tentativeness of civilizationa work apparently still in progress, approximately 4,700 years after the events described took placeand about the ongoing necessity of evolution, here in the male.

Yes, the scope of the source material and the adaptation is limited. Neither have all the answers. And the same is clearly true for useven at this very late date. Still, the partial responses this text does provide about the beginnings of humanity in the individualand its potential for developmentclearly make it a more than usually intriguing document.

The Drawer Boy

Ghost & Spice Productions
Common Ground Theatre
Through April 21

Serendipity, call your office: The week’s second useful tale about men comes from the Ghost and Spice production of The Drawer Boy at Common Ground Theatre. As is frequently the case with Ghost and Spice, the emphases here are on a thought-provoking text and robust acting, up close.

Michael Healey’s pensive script inquires into the relationship between memory and identity, as an earnest but gullible young city actor named Miles (Josh Long) happens upon a mystery on a rural Canadian farm. There he meets Angus, an aging man whose long-term memory was apparently removed after an accident in the Second World War. His keeper, Morgan, also keeps Angus’ memoriesand retells them to him nightly, after a hard day’s work on the farm. At first, Miles is charmed as he eavesdrops on Morgan’s tales. Then he starts to notice there seem to be holes in themdiscrepancies that raise questions concerning the whereabouts of the two women the men were once in love with, and a house Angus designed before his accident.

Healey’s work blends whimsy with darker colors in this story of an unconventional family’s unconventional secrets. Under Donna Shannon’s direction, actors Tom Marriott and John Murphy believably navigate the emotional depths of troubled waters. When Marriott gives Angus’ light emotions their initial charm, his character’s later distress hits us harder than anticipated. With Murphy, Morgan’s absurd lies about farming amuse us as they hoodwink Milesuntil the price of later lies are given a full accounting.

Strange it is: In both productions men are hurt. In both, the principals have to go much further than they imagine to address that pain. Both achieve differing results in the attempt. All of these are reason enough to schedule both plays for men’s nights out this week.

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