At least before the craptacular all-CGI movie version last year, most people's introduction to the (at least) thousand-year-old epic poem Beowulf was being forced to read it in school, quite possibly slogging through the original Old English. All the pulse-pounding thrills of heroic Beowulf of the Geats (of what's now Sweden) and the monster Grendel are literally lost in translation and neutered by critical dissection.
Shotgun Players' world premiere of Beowulf: A Thousand Years of Baggage is a breath of fresh air, both in terms of reclaiming the adventure from being strictly the province of scholars and as the most thoroughly enjoyable theatrical display I've seen yet this year.
A song-play created with New York's Banana Bag & Bodice, this Beowulf pits the heroic action, told largely in dazzling and often very funny song and dance, against the academic jargon of a panel of scholars. It's tempting to call it a rock opera in terms of its raucous energy, but Dave Malloy's music leans more toward enthrallingly bouncy cabaret numbers with some jazz, a little calyspo and rockabilly, and a whole lot of Kurt Weill.
Leading a six-piece band to the rear of the stage, Malloy also appears as a disheveled and beaten-down Danish King Hrothgar, whose mead hall is plagued by the carnage of the ravenous monster Grendel. "Oh dear god, I'm a fucking mess," Malloy sings as Hrothgar, playing an accordion. "I need Beowulf."
Anna Ishida and Shaye Troha give peppy, sometimes dissonant harmony vocals as quasi-burlesque go-go dancing warriors, doing elaborate, ill-fated battle with Grendel or shimmying and singing, "Here he comes, it's that guy, that guy!" as Beowulf emerges in silhouette and breaks through a screen.
Beowulf's entrance is a masterpiece of bravado, boasting lunkishly in his dazzling song to "Mr. King Hrothgar, sir" that not only will he kill Grendel, but "I will shit on his back and piss on his ankle." Meanwhile the warriors gyrate on hands and knees chanting, "Horses and swords, oh my my my." At this point my jotted-down notes say, "That was fucking awesome."
A good deal of that awesomeness comes from the music, an impressive follow-up to Malloy's memorable score for Ten Red Hen's Clown Bible last year. Beowulf is packed with glee-enducing songs from the super-catchy "Welcome to our mead hall Heorot" to Grendel's mom's particularly Weillesque lament, to Beowulf's bouncy "I Ripped Him Up Good."
BB&B co-artistic director Jason Craig, who also wrote the script, is terrific as Beowulf. He's a big, dumb guy, sure, but polite and bloodthirsty at the same time, and his inarticulateness is often hilarious.
Speaking in often hysterical academic jargon with a lot of comic repetition and talking over each other, the droning scholars become the monsters that Beowulf must battle. Christopher Kuckenbaker goes from self-important hipster to the feral, sneering Grendel. The other co-artistic director Jessica Jelliffe's cold monotone and blasé expression become menacing, sensual, and casually formidable as Grendel's mother. And Cameron Galloway's mousy librarian type feels somehow entirely appropriate as the Old English-spouting dragon.
As absurd as the panelists are, they're used to make some interesting points, noting the Christian trappings of an essentially pagan story, and particularly contrasting "this notion of mother care" to the patriarchal culture of Beowulf and the Danes. Grendel has a mother but no known father, and the heroic lineages of Beowulf and Hrothgar's fathers are boasted of but their mothers are unmentioned.
Rod Hipskind's endlessly innovative staging takes place on, around, and under a marvelously versatile set with the panelists seated in a pit in the foreground and the mythic action taking place behind them. Microphones hang low over the stage for the actors to clutch in action, and the back wall is a stack of fans used to dramatic effect in the final battle. Kaibrina Buck's costumes mix furry vests, leather, catsuits, and bits of barbarian kitsch.
The battle with Grendel is staged like a boxing or wrestling match, with Jelliffe describing the rumpus clinically as Galloway holds up corresponding play-by-play signs. Finally, Beowulf rips Grendel's arm off with elaborate theatricality. As Grendel's mom yells later on, "You popped his arm off like some weird, weird, weirdo sicko!"
As down to earth or downright earthy as the characters can be, it's the outsize staginess of the production that makes it both as entertaining and as effective as it is, whether it's small touches like Beowulf playing with action figures of himself and Grendel, or more elaborate devices: The underwater battle with Grendel's mother is represented by the academics splashing in fishtanks as Kuckenbaker describes Beowulf's "thematical courage" with mounting excitement. "It's crazy, thematically crazy! Seriously!"
This is epic storytelling, and the way it's presented needn't be high-tech but it does need to be larger than life. That's where Beowulf succeeds magnificently.
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