In the 1920s, a Syrian farmer discovered some very old bones, which turned out to be from the graves of the lost city of Ugarit, circa 1400 BC. Archaeologists also found Ugaritic texts, including one story, written on 10 clay tablets, that they think dates to 8000 BC Turkey. It tells of a young woman named Ninshaba who dreams that her long-lost mother is a goddess on a mountain, and who sets out to find her. Ziggurat Theatre Ensemble re-tells the Ugaritic re-telling in the visually arresting, stunningly performed Ninshaba, on stage at the Portland Ballet Studio Theater under the direction of Ziggurat co-founders Stephen Legawiec and Dana Wieluns Legawiec, who first created and staged the show 20 years ago.
We hear the historical background up front, in chummy everyman narration by Stephen Legawiec, and the story’s entire plot-line, which unfolds over 10 episodes, is previewed—several times—by a seven-member ensemble, dressed in white robes and headdresses, faces painted white and lips red. In this way, Ziggurat allows to pretend that we, too, have long heard the story repeated, and it prepares us for what is most idiosyncratic and revelatory about the show: Ninshaba is performed almost entirely in an invented language.
As early as the first tablet, as Ninshaba (Erica Murphy) shakes in fever, then tells her nurse Batzabbay (Kathleen Nation) of her visions, the experience of watching immediately feels different. Gesture, costume, and sound become momentous and charged, become the crucial, archetypal currencies of the story, much like Stacey Koloski’s simple set of white-gray pillars, textured like fossils, feels both ancient and timeless. Loosened in time, freed from verbal language, we watch with a different part of the brain, and it is exhilarating.
Murphy’s tall, elegant Ninshaba is an earnest, innocently imperious ingénue, in contrast with the slapstick-y vagabond Quaqsaya (Dana Wieluns Legawiec), a kaleidoscopic fool who guides Ninshaba to the mountain, ribbing and joking on the way. Legawiec’s timing, whether guilting Ninshaba out of flatbread or chasing away a paunchy paramour (Megan Tripaldi), is impeccable. And Murphy is sinuous, preternaturally graceful, and sometimes—in a belly dance or a flailing ritual ecstasy—electric. Without words, everyone’s least gesture resonates. When a rat in a nun’s habit (Molana Oei) shows up, all it has to do is look sideways at Ninshaba—once, twice—and the sense of threat is primal.
That nun, its rat-face mask tapering out eerily from its habit, is one in a gorgeous and inventive array of costumes and masks (by Anne Collins and Beckie Kravetz). The goddess Ashera (Emily Grotz) wears iridescent green-gold; plague victims hang red strips of gauze over noses and mouths; a black-gauzed woman in mourning (Hollie Pryor) stoops under the weight of a white-wrapped corpse. As we watch, we hear drums, chimes, and—most importantly—the powerfully tonal human voice. In their invented language, the voices convey fear, exasperation, and grief; whisper little cacophonies of gossip; and sing Middle Eastern harmonies, carrying the emotions from tablet to tablet.
Ninshaba | Created and produced by the Ziggurat Theatre Ensemble; directed by Stephen Legawiec and Dana Wieluns Legawiec; produced at the Portland Ballet Studio Theater | Through May 28 | Fri-Sun 7:30 pm | $20, $15 seniors/students, $5 youth 8-12 |
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