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'Gilgamesh': An epic, adventurous drama

You don't have to be familiar with the ancient Babylonian texts that "Gilgamesh" is derived from to enjoy Constellation Theatre Company's fresh new adaptation. Naturally it helps if you are already acquainted with the epic adventures of one King Gilgamesh and his beloved pal, Enkidu, but it's not entirely necessary -- director Allison Arkell Stockman takes all of the guesswork out of the historical legend that explores such eternal themes as loneliness, love and immortality.

Step into the black box space at Source, and Ethan Sinnott's set immediately transports us back in time to a dusty Mesopotamian fantasy, a blank slate marked with shadows and mysterious symbols carved in cuneiform. Here Stockman crafts lovely stage pictures, including striking visions of human hieroglyphs accompanied by live sound design from world music guru Tom Teasley. As the exciting exploits unfurl before us, Teasley brilliantly bangs on tribal drums and other percussion and electronic instruments to produce a unique aural experience that resonates throughout the evening.

It all makes for one enchanted world premiere from a small company with big talents. Rich with imagination, the theatrical version ventures into melodramatic territory more than once with a script that vacillates between profound bits of poetry and miserably prosaic dialogue. The concept and dramaturgical work is credited to Chad Gracia, but the bulk of what we hear comes from the pen of Yusef Komunyakaa, a Pulitzer Prize recipient for his work in poetry.

» Where: Constellation Theatre Company at Source Theatre, 1835 14th St. NW
» When: Through June 2
» Info: $25 to $45; 800-494-8497; constellationtheatre.org

"What is a god without man?" asks Enkidu, and thus begins the immortal friendship between a king and his earthly brother. As the pair journey together on a quest to eradicate evil and defeat death, Gilgamesh must learn the cathartic lessons of time and distance from all that is loved.

Stockman's dreamlike treatment employs traditional devices of classic Greek drama and borrows from contemporary narrative forms, including creative puppetry designed by Matthew McGee and inspired, otherworldly costumes from the gifted Kendra Rai.

Joel David Santner is fittingly staunch and stoic as the titular demigod who undergoes such a transformative odyssey, and he is equally matched by Andreu Honeycutt's Enkidu. Honeycutt is both raw and refined as the beast who is made human by the gods. Other stand-out performances among the ensemble include Emma Crane Jaster, Ashley Ivey and Katy Carkuff as a siren whose charms stall Gilgamesh long enough to fall in love.

With such vivid imagery and the appeal of the oldest story ever written, there is an air of collective memory to these well-aged tales, as though its morality and verse lies somewhere beneath the strata of the subconscious in a pool of forgotten truth. Under Stockman's keen direction, this "Gilgamesh" is one epic you have to see to believe.