The Haven Project at the Winningstad Theater, 1111 SW Broadway, 872-9635, Wed-Sat 7:30 pm, Sat-Sun 2 pm, through February 8, $10-15

T he best epics are the ones that don't take themselves too seriously. Director Ebbe Roe Smith and the Haven Project have taken this ethic and created a perfectly realized epic comedy. In Gilgamesh we see men fighting monsters, talking with the gods, and achieving immortality. We also get a fair dose of fart jokes, striptease, and drunken debauchery. In what amounts to a full color comic strip for the stage, the themes of lost innocence, ambition, and unconditional love are played with guts and panache.

Gilgamesh begins with the lusty, power-drunken King of Uruk, whose appetite for wine and virgins is only matched by his loneliness. The people of Uruk are given a gift from the gods, a "playmate" for King Gilgamesh. Enkidu is the wild man of the forest, who is lured away from his animal friends by a city woman. Gilgamesh and Enkidu turn their unmatched rivalry into an undying friendship, exploring the reaches of the world together and facing the most perilous odds.

The Haven Project's company has created one of the most efficient and charismatic ensembles of recent memory, combining irresistible charm with authoritative performances. Tim True's Gilgamesh is a terrifying manchild who dreams in video and comes of age on stage. Jami Chatalas returns to the Portland stage as a coquettish sexpot, charming the pants off the world with Gena Rowlands eyes and an I Dream of Genie bellybutton. Andy Buzan (of 3rd Floor fame) takes the show by the throat with a winning smile, and a hilarious fake moustache gag. The cast is filled out by John Steinkamp, Victor Morris, Susannah Mars, and Amelia Zirin-Brown, who sing in perfect harmony and transform into gods, rednecks, and giant scorpions before your very eyes.

The Haven Project provides at-risk youth with theater professionals as mentors, and this compassion seems to really be the star of the show. It's an innocent joy that comes through in the performance, because through all the fighting, singing, and weeping, the actors seem to be sharing a collective smile. Love is just a big inside joke, and Gilgamesh is a cheeky wink at your inner at-risk scamp. TOUSSAINT PERRAULT

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