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Ninshaba: Los Angeles Times

"’I was reading this book about archeology…’ So begins creator-director Stephen Legawiec’s casual introduction to "Ninshaba" at Glaxa Studios.

A more literate and personalized opening than ‘once upon a time,’ perhaps, but it ushers us into a theatrical world every bit as fanciful and imaginative as any fairy tale. With an innovative mix of narrative, mime, dance and costuming (Ziggurat) Theatre company makes an obscure Near East myth into something inviting and familiar.

From his perch amid piles of texts, papers, and percussive instruments, Legawiec explains that his play originated in clay tablets from the ancient Turkish city of Ugarit, unearthed in Syria in the 1920s. The tablets contain the only complete version of a legendary young woman’s journey from her plague-ridden homeland to seek her unknown mother. Before each episode, Legawiec summarizes the contents of the appropriate tablet.

It’s a story that’s been related for 4,000 years before it was ever written down, and it comes to us with individual details burnished into archetypal elements through countless re-tellings.

To evoke that timeless sense, the company invented a pleasing, nonsensical language, with which the performers skillfully combine expressive movements to make their meaning clear. Occasional narration from Legawiec and a three-member chorus fill in any gaps.

The quest of Ninshaba (limber, eloquent Candace Reid) follows a familiar mythic pattern. In the midst of a fever comes a vision that propels the maiden to seek her lost mother in a distant land. Accompanied by Quaqsaya, a mischievous, mercurial spirit, (amusingly rendered by Dana Wieluns in the best commedia tradition), Ninshaba faces numerous perils and temptations in her wandering.

Naturally, the encounters symbolize critical life passages. An elegant, handsome suitor (Angela Backman) nearly seduces Ninshaba to marry despite Quaqsaya’s hilarious efforts to cool her friend’s ardor. A grieving mother, preying on Ninshaba’s good heart, coaxes her into joining her daughter’s funeral procession – until Ninshaba realizes that the face of the dead girl is her own.

In his narration, Legawiec makes much of the puzzling seventh tablet, describing a seemingly unrelated harvest dance by a fertility goddess (Reid). Coming on the heels of the death episode, the theme of regeneration in this short interlude resonates even if it doesn’t advance the plot. (And, of course, it establishes the prehistoric origins of the seventh inning stretch.)

The colorful characters are evoked with the help of Beckie Kravetz’s exotic masks. Among the most striking is a regal, mouse-headed guardian who tests Ninshaba’s integrity with a series of probing questions.

As in all such myths, Ninshaba’s journey is ultimately one of self discovery. Yet the relative rarity of her being a woman-hero engenders some variation – there’s less emphasis on combat, and instead of having to do battle with the parent figure, the point of her quest is a mother and daughter reunion sweet enough for a Hallmark card."

Philip Brandes, © Los Angeles Times, March 13, 1997


Ninshaba: LA Weekly "Pick of the Week"

"Candace Reid plays Ninshaba, a young woman living in ancient Turkey who embarks upon an arduous and transforming journey across a desert to find Queen Asherah, Ninshaba’s mother whom she never knew. En route, she endures a sword-wielding magician as well as the seductions of a fabulously attired suitor, and she must convince the gatekeeper of Asherah’s mountain to allow her to pass. Under Stephen Legawiec’s elegant economic direction, (Ziggurat) Theatre Company’s production traces Ninshaba’s odyssey by harnessing mime, music, dance, and an ancient language – Ugarit. The tale is possibly 6000 years old, was retold orally for 4000, and it comes down to us in a series of 10 stone tablets dating merely from 1400 B.C. Legawiec remains in modern dress at the side of the stage to narrate, sing and drum. His approach is to summarize the contents of each tablet several times , and thus the story’s rendering almost entirely in an ancient, cryptic language is never a barrier. A chorus, or kadin (Daryl Dickerson, Hep Jamieson, and Myrtle Wood), adds melodious texture to many of the tableaux, as do compelling performances by Reid and the supple Dana Wieluns (as both Queen Asherah, and Quaqsaya, a proto-Harlequin figure who accompanies the heroine). Beckie Kravetz’s marvelous masks and Robert Velasquez’s gorgeous costumes are the cornerstone of the accomplished technical work. In short, Ninshaba is an unexpected theatrical treasure, transporting us with elemental storytelling and revealing a fragment of world heritage."

- Paul B. Cohen, © LA Weekly, March 7-13, 1997

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