nytheatre.com review by Martin Denton
April 17, 2008
Babylon Babylon is very big: when its 30+ cast members line up along the two sides of the playing space, they fill the Brick Theater nearly from wall to wall. It's also big in terms of writer-director-producer-narrator Jeff Lewonczyk's overall vision. Babylon Babylon aspires to the blatant spectacle of a Cecil B. DeMille movie epic and the potent ritual of an Ellen Stewart-Great Jones Theater Company classic revival; it marries a story-telling spirit and ethos worthy of the Arabian Nights to a cautionary tragedy such as a Greek poet (say, Aeschylus) might have fashioned. I'm full of admiration for the (literally) several dozen artists who have pulled this show together, but I'd be remiss to call it an unqualified success. But wow, what an extraordinary effort has gone into the creation of this piece!
The play takes place at the Temple of Ishtar in Babylon just before the city is overrun by the Persian army (that would put the date at 539 B.C.; see this Wikipedia article for background). At this temple, a ritual is enacted daily by women who come here to worship the goddess Ishtar whereby men donate gold for the privilege of having sex with them; this ritual is the backdrop for Lewonczyk's complex tale.
Among the women today is a prophetess named Gemekaa who sees all too clearly, as Cassandra did at the time of the Trojan War, the defeat of her people at the hands of invaders. Among the men at the temple today is Belshazzar, the Prince of Babylon, here in disguise and in a panic about what to do as his city seems about to fall.
Belshazzar is cousin to the High Priestess, but she seems unwilling to provide him much in the way of guidance or support, trusting in her goddess; the High Priestess is similarly unwelcoming to an emissary from the temple of Marduk who is trying to arrange to close her temple down in the face of impending crisis.
Many others drift through the story: a rich woman and her two slaves; a peddler whose most valuable product may well be her wisdom; a devoted worshipper of Ishtar who wants to perform the sex-ritual multiple times; a very poor and dirty beggar who happened upon a piece of gold; a very rich merchant; a Jew who is an advisor (though slave) to the Prince; two battling young couples and the sister-in-law of one of these young men, who is a Persian; and more. Their individual pursuits and desires and squabbles rise and fall throughout the piece but specific resolution of any of their issues is never the point: they're here, I believe, to remind us of the humanity of souls long lost to history—to point up, perhaps, how fundamentally alike are people of 2008 and their ancestors of 2500 years ago.
Myths of the goddess Ishtar—her descent into the underworld and her meeting with the hero Gilgamesh—are recounted during the play, as are other stories (the most interesting for me was the Babylonian account of the Great Flood). Lewonczyk has evidently done lots of research for this piece, and I certainly learned a lot of provocative stuff about ancient Babylon that I'm glad to have discovered.
But the many loose threads are not tied up satisfyingly. The Prince has an encounter with a mountain girl named Ettu, but the expected lesson in humility never comes; even more tantalizingly, the prophetess Gemekaa has a time-warping meeting with a modern-day U.S. soldier named Tom who is exploring the Mesopotamian ruins in Iraq. I loved the idea of linking what happened then to what is happening now...but the connections are only vaguely alluded to, and the soldier disappears before we understand his purpose in the play.
Babylon Babylon contains chanting and singing and movement; some exciting martial arts-type fight sequences by Qui Nguyen; belly dancing by Amantha May; broad moments of comic relief. It doesn't contain the one thing you think it might given its setting—all the sex and (presumed) nudity is safely offstage.
Lewonczyk and his designers Jason Robert Bell (production & video), Ian W. Hill (lighting), Julianne Kroboth (costumes), and Dave Shim (sound) have done remarkable work marshaling resources to mount this massive play within the relatively small Brick; kudos particularly to Hill for making the show visible from and in every corner of the space.
The cast includes many frequent collaborators of Lewonczyk and Hill (and many members of nytheatre.com's reviewing squad), along with newcomers. Their commitment and concentration as an ensemble are commendable. Some particularly memorable contributions are made by Maggie Cino as the prophetess (who seems mad, but we know she's not), Heather Lee Rogers as an acolyte of the Ishtar cult, Marguerite French as a stranger who turns out not to be what she seems, Michele Carlo as the wise peddler, Adam Swiderski as a very old man and the American, and Robin Reed, who is absolutely hilarious as the impossibly difficult rich woman (her entrance, reminiscent of Gloria Swanson in Sunset Boulevard, is delicious).
For taking audiences into a historical epoch that we probably know very little about, and for awakening our curiosity about it, Lewonczyk scores big. The mere fact of this odyssey into a place that our drama seldom brings us is what's very best about Babylon Babylon.