At a coffee shop in Toronto, two unlikely pals meet.
One, Jesse, is a wannabe Hollywood actor, living in Toronto out of pure circumstance. The other’s a barista named Ahmed, loquacious and curious about the world around him.
They have things in common, it turns out. They’re both actors, and they’re both permanent residents of Canada. They both feel a deep connection to music-making.
And somewhere deep inside, they’re both terribly, terribly lonely.
On this first chance meeting, surrounded by the charm of the empty coffee shop, Ahmed (played with a gorgeous blend of humour and subtlety by Ahmed Moneka) decides to tell Jesse the story of King Gilgamesh, the oldest story in the world (Jesse LaVercombe, too, is superb). It’s a twisting, often scrambled epic, with striking images and powerful fables embedded into the fabric of the myth.
Over the course of their evening, Jesse and Ahmed grow closer, learning more about each other and their respective cultures as they indulge in psychedelic drugs. It’s an intense bonding experience for the men, whose lives quickly become intertwined — before they separate once more, perhaps for good.
King Gilgamesh and the Man of the Wild defies genre. It’s a great fit for Soulpepper, a dandy blend of theatre and live music (the band, called Moneka Arabic Jazz and founded by Moneka, is led with bluesy grace by bandleader Demetrios Petsalakis). Moneka doesn’t just act, he sings, too, with a youthful bravado that only adds to the complexities of Ahmed’s and Jesse’s friendship. Jesse, as well, is a wizard on the keys.
Seth Bockley directs the piece with a personal flair — he’s billed as playwright and co-creator alongside Moneka and LaVercombe — and he’s managed to find an impressive balance between making the evening feel like a concert and a play. The elements are inextricable from each other, the music and the myth-making, and the whole affair is impeccably well paced. Lorenzo Savoini’s set and lighting, too, float between concert and play, and the effect is just lovely.
Elements of this play echo another high point of Toronto theatre this year, Maanomaa, My Brother at Canadian Stage/Blue Bird Theatre Collective. The piece similarly used real-life narrative references to explore an encounter between dissonant cultures and the delicacy of friendship between men. The two shows speak to each other, Gilgamesh with music and Maanomaa with movement, and the plays perhaps also signal a larger need for stories about men being gentle with one another. Maanomaa was a delight, and King Gilgamesh picks up right where it left off, creating a scrumptious harmony of well-conceived new works.
King Gilgamesh and the Man of the Wild is one of Soulpepper’s best pieces of programming of the past year, a perfect summer evening of live performance in the intimate Michael Young Theatre. Strongly recommended — and bring a friend. You’ll be grooving in your seats the whole time.
King Gilgamesh and the Man of the Wild runs at Soulpepper through August 6. Tickets are available here.
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