When it comes to legendary tales from long ago, “The Epic of Gilgamesh” is about as far back as you can travel. The poem from ancient Mesopotamia (today Iraq, Kuwait and parts of Syria and Turkey) is thought to be the oldest surviving work of literature. It was deciphered from a series of clay tablets dating from the 13th to 7th centuries B.C.
“It’s a story very much from my country,” says Ahmed Moneka, who grew up in Baghdad and now lives in Toronto, where he is an actor and musician. “It’s the first story talking about friendship, about love, about wisdom, about mortality.”
The classic tale of Gilgamesh, a king/god considered a tyrant, and Enkidu, a wild man fashioned from clay, who is sent by the gods to stop Gilgamesh and becomes his friend and brother, has been adapted into a two-person play by Moneka, Jesse LaVercombe, a Toronto actor-writer, and Seth Bockley, known to Chicago theatergoers for co-adapting/directing, with the Goodman Theatre’s Robert Falls, a massive staging of Roberto Bolano’s novel “2666.”
“Gilgamesh and Enkidu” is debuting locally as part of the unique Pivot Arts Festival, which for the past seven years has staged contemporary and multidisciplinary works in a variety of venues (theaters, storefronts, businesses) in the Uptown and Edgewater neighborhoods.
Bockley first encountered the ancient legend of Gilgamesh in 2004 at Redmoon Theater. He recalls “a beautiful pageant performance” with grade school students the theater was working with at the time.
“The friendship between Gilgamesh and Enkidu is the heart of the story which is complex and winding,” Bockley says, adding that that friendship and a major plot twist “make it still a very relevant work of literature that people continue to find inspiration in.”
The story, which the trio of adaptors has concocted, lays out the ancient epic alongside the story of the friendship between Moneka and LaVercombe who met through the arts scene in Toronto. Within both stories there are common themes of belonging and home.
Moneka’s backstory is dramatic in itself. He had a thriving career in Iraqi theater and television when in 2014 he starred in Osama Rasheed’s “The Society,” a film that told of the trials and tribulations of two gay men living in Baghdad. After the film screened in 2015 at the Toronto International Film Festival, Moneka received threats and was advised not to return to Iraq; he sought political asylum in Canada.
“I was forced to stay in Toronto and it saved my life,” Moneka says. “A lot of this is in the play. About how to continue your life when life forces you to do things that you’re not happy about but you have to surrender to and follow.”
Moneka and LaVercombe initially met at Toronto’s Driftwood Theatre, where they were both artists-in-residence. But their deeper connection was forged through music, which also plays a part in “Gilgamesh and Enkidu.”
Moneka grew up with maqam-style Iraqi music and, although it’s not part of his professional life, LaVercombe has an affinity for jazz piano, which he introduced to his friend. Mokena now fronts two popular Toronto bands: Moskitto Bar, a multicultural blend of Arabic, Balkan and Berber music, and Moneka Arabic Jazz, which merges maqam, jazz and blues.
“Ahmed is an incredible musician and his music really took off in Toronto,” LaVercombe says. “And now he has all this music we can draw from. It’s part of the show and also something that over time will continue to grow as the show grows.”
The Chicago production is the world premiere of “Gilgamesh and Enkidu,” which has been workshopped at Toronto’s Tarragon Theatre and Minneapolis’ Guthrie Theatre. It’s by no means a final version, says LaVercombe who admits to being a novice at adaptation when compared to Bockley who’s “so good at pumping out scenes and cutting out stuff and trying something new and finding that one useful thing in it all.”
“But I do think we’ve arrived at something that is cohesive and gets done most of what we were aiming for,” he adds. “We have a structure we’re happy with.”
The story thread that Bockley says he keeps coming back to is the value of friendship, which is something he also hopes is a take away for audiences.
“There’s this idea here of being able to see yourself more clearly by telling your story, by hearing another person’s story, by trusting other people with your most intimate secrets, stories, experiences and vulnerabilities,” Bockley says. “It’s a lesson in how friendship can be a key to helping us see ourselves and understand our own experience better.”
Mary Houlihan is a local freelance writer.