'King Gilgamesh & The Man of the Wild' Created by Seth Bockley, Jesse LaVercombe and Ahmed Moneka
Now onstage in the Michael Young Theatre at Soulpepper, 50 Tank House Lane, Distillery District, Toronto
Credit: Dahlia Katz. On floor: Jesse LaVercombe as Jesse/Enikdu AND Ahmed Moneka as Ahmed/King Gilgamesh
A celebration of the solid bonds of male friendship that transcends any kind of differences.
With Lorenzo Savoini’s evocatively elegant chamber musical-looking set design complete with three chandeliers overhanging the onstage jazz band, ‘King Gilgamesh & The Man of The Wild’ opens with Arabic music I’ve never heard before.
In a recent review of a New York production, I commented on how music can reach out and touch the soul even more than words can.
It happened to me here at this opening night, and I could see the same happening to those around me, as many had smiles.
The play becomes an engaging hybrid theatre piece of music and dialogue. Written by director of the production Seth Bockley and performers Jesse LaVercombe and Ahmed Moneka, ‘Gilgamesh’ intertwines two stories about male friendship. Ahmed’s band ‘MONEKA ARABIC JAZZ’ finely underscores the production and remains another reason to see it and allow the music to sweep you away.
On the contemporary side, we learn about Jesse and Ahmed. The two of them meet in a coffee shop where the latter works. LaVercombe is an actor struggling from job to job. He’s on the phone with his agent about a possible film shoot in Los Angeles with actor Jeff Daniels. LaVercombe, an American, now lives in Toronto. He fell in love with a Canadian girl. That relationship went south, so he’s trying to keep himself busy with work. When Ahmed asks Jesse why he won’t leave the province to return to Los Angeles to work, LaVercombe responds: “The provincial health care.”
Ahmed is a filmmaker who had a movie premiere at TIFF a few years ago that dealt with homosexuality. There were problems back in Iraq because of the film, and Ahmed decided to remain in Canada for the time being. In ‘Gilgamesh,’ he recently learns that the Canadian federal government has granted him permanent immigrant status. He hopes his family can join him in Canada but recognizes that the process will take time. Moneka is also waiting for the birth of his child. He checks in frequently via phone with his wife to see how she is doing.
On the historical side, the ancient Mesopotamian poem ‘The Epic of Gilgamesh,’ which comes from Ancient Iraq, weaves through the lives of Ahmed and Jesse in modern-day Toronto. Moneka plays Gilgamesh, the king of Uruk, on his journey to find a true friend. LaVercombe plays Enkidu, a wild man whom the Gods have sent to Gilgamesh. Enkidu will challenge and eventually become the king’s friend. The two go on various epic quests. One is quite fascinating to hear – the encounter with the divine Bull of Heaven. Enkidu dies, and Gilgamesh is thrown into deep grief and a crisis regarding his mortality, but he soon learns to accept the importance of living a meaningful life.
At times there are gaps in the poem which, according to the programme: “tickle our curiosity; [and] leave room for the artists to imagine.” Bockley, LaVercombe, and Moneka allow their imaginations to soar in this production, especially in their narration and poem presentation. To borrow loosely from Lewis Carroll, ‘Gilgamesh’ made me ‘curiouser’ and ‘curiouser’ about the poem and to see where it goes.
In this era of male feminists, ‘Gilgamesh’ speaks credible volumes about the bonds of true male friendship. It speaks directly to the men in the audience as we connect uniquely differently from women. There is no fear when men feel they have a friend at their side.
Director Seth Bockley innately gets that and proudly showcases this poetic celebration of the strength and bond of manhood. For example, we men are not afraid to wear our much-washed and faded Blue Jays T-shirt and worn pants as LaVercombe does. Moneka’s wrinkled clothing is another reminder that we men don’t care how another man looks fashion-wise, especially if we know he has been at the hospital for hours waiting for the birth of a child.
The play’s dialogue is, at times, boldly crude, especially in the way Moneka and LaVercombe discuss sex and their first time having it. The former has pleasant memories of his first time, while the latter chooses not to discuss it due to feeling embarrassed. But this is how we men connect. We are blunt and often use colourful language and speech vernacular. As Gilgamesh, Moneka succinctly taps into that literary archetype of the boastful strong king who says he’s powerful both on the battlefield and in the bedroom. As Enkidu, LaVercombe listens astutely with admirable praise for his king.
But men stand by what they say and what they mean. Men can also feel things from the heart just as women can. At one point, Ahmed’s broken heart at the death of his friend Enkidu is handled with extreme class. At another point, a firm embrace is exchanged between the two men. And yes, a man can say “I love you” to another man, and Gilgamesh and Enkidu say that to each other. There is nothing effeminate about that at all at this moment. Moneka and LaVercombe convincingly reveal this solid bond in their character performances, and I could send this is how they also feel about each other in real life.
While touting how ‘Gilgamesh’ espouses the need for friends to help us become our most authentic, best, and strongest selves, the production also focuses on how a spark, a conversation between two uniquely different individuals, can transcend differences. Moneka is an Iraqi Muslim. LaVercombe is Jewish and American born. Ahmed and Jesse’s backgrounds would place them as opposites when mentioning the Second Iraq War. There has been mounting tension at this realization, and it’s handled exceptionally well.
There appears to be no animosity between LaVercombe and Moneka. The programme states they met at an Ontario cabin in 2017, and a story of friendship emerged between this unlikely pair. Their friendship has become not only a gift between them but one for all of us who have the chance to see this performance. The bond of friendship between them is strengthened and celebrated through their love of music.
Listening to Moneka's Jazz band play is a delightful experience for the ears and remains another reason to see the production.
Running time: approximately 95 minutes with no intermission.
‘King Gilgamesh & The Man of the Wild’ runs until August 6 at Soulpepper Theatre in Toronto’s Historic Distillery District, 50 Tank House Lane.
For tickets: soulpepper.ca or call the Box Office (416) 866-8666.
SOULPEPPER and TRIA THEATRE PRESENTS
‘King Gilgamesh & The Man of the Wild’
Playwright: Seth Bockley, Jesse LaVercombe, Ahmed Moneka
Director: Seth Bockley
Set and Lighting Designer: Lorenzo Savoini
Sound Designer: Adrian Shepherd Gawinski
Band Members: Demetrios Petsalakis, Bandleader/Multi-instrumentalist
Waleed Abdulhamid, Bass and Vocals
Jessica Deutsch, Violin
Max Senitt, Drums
Selcuk Suna, Saxophone, Clarinet
Performers: Jesse LaVercombe as Enkidu/Jesse AND Ahmed Moneka as King Gilgamesh/Ahmed