Saturday, April 26, 2008

Babylon, Babylon

Photo/Ken Stein

A cast of thirty, an epic story right out of 530 B.C., a fantastical emphasis on the sexual rites of Ishtar (sexy costumes included), and compelling and tumultuous choreography. It's a wonderfully daring illusion and incredibly ambitious challenge for the small, off-off-Broadway Brick theater. And for a while, that illusion holds: it's hard not to be stunned as the entire cast enters, pantomiming the Tigris and Euphrates rivers. After that, we're lost a bit in absorbing all the characters as they return, this time as worshipers of Ishtar, paying their fearful respects to the goddess of love and war as the Persian army barks at the gates to Babylon.

But after a while, the audience is close enough to see the illusion for what it is: an assembly of unfinished thoughts. Zakiti has brought her virgin sister, Alittum, to the temple, but Rasha Zamamiri plays the elder sister as little more than a horny Babylonian, and Melina Gag-Artigas just contents herself with sitting around, waiting for the dramatic focus to turn to her, just in time for her to suddenly kick up a fight when Sharrukin turns his eyes to her. At least Kamran Khan, who plays this ruthless role, has a clear goal -- he wants to fuck a virgin, and with the brothels all closed, he'll settle for the decayed and decadent worship of the temple. These aren't bad actors, but they exist simply to make noise and provide for the illusion of substance on stage. There's no narrative force driving them on, so when it's their turn (the other actors sit idly on their cushions), they have little more to do than pseudo-historical exposition.

It's very hard to hold up such a grant act under such close scrutiny, but with the cast sandwiched between two long rows of expectant audience members, it's hard to overlook the lackluster gaps, such as the fact that Labbu (Adrian Jevicki) is just a man in a white bodysuit, a mane lashed to his head and tail tied to his ass. And it doesn't help either that the young lovers, Iltani and Timgiratee (Gyda Arber and Fred Backus) and their friends, Amata and Demeetresu (Toya Lillard and Eric Bland) sound as American as apple pie, valley girl slang and all. Looking at The Sparrow (Aaron Barker), I always felt like I was watching an actor; after the show, he stood outside in his animal skins, smoking a cigarette in the afternoon sun. All these things stack the deck against the dazzling effect Jeff Lewoncyzk is going for.

The close proximity plays other problems too: perspective goes all out of focus, as when scenes overlap at opposite ends of the stage. Acolyte Niiqquulamuusu (Robert Pinnock) tells one story of Marduk, while Ku-Baba (Michele Carlo) gives her own take on the old gods, but it's hard to figure out what's going on: it's too much, too close, like getting caught up in the Tigris. The artificial climax just makes things worse, with the violent chaos being hopelessly comedic: fight choreography always seems a little ridiculous when punches are pulled inches from your eyes. And while we're talking of perspective, introducing a modern American soldier (Adam Swiderski), whether it's through the Cassandra-like Gemekaa's (Maggie Cino) vision or not, doesn't exactly ground the show in history, and strains far too much for political relevance (the ruins of Babylon are in Iraq) that should be beside the point of a show like Babylon, Babylon.

Of course, in a show this epic, there are also bound to be spots of brilliance: the morality of slavery is exaggerated by Kullaa's (Robin Reed) reign over Yadidatum (Siobhan Doherty) and Ubar (Danny Bowes), but the two secret lovers find some nice quiet moments. The same goes for Belshazzar (Michael Criscuolo), the prince-in-hiding, who speaks politics with his cousin, the High Priestess (Hope Cartelli) just as easily as he falls for the sweet mountain girl, Ettu (Iracel Rivero), a person so non-judgmental and sweet that she might as well be the anti-me. If only there were time to develop the story instead of simply conjuring it up, Babylon, Babylon might find true magic. Instead, I found myself always looking up the sleeve and behind the curtain of every scene, waiting and wanting to be impressed. That would've been a small miracle.

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