Beowulf Disarming At A.R.T.
Grendel, His Mom and King Hrothgar Sing At Oberon
By: Mark Favermann - Apr 17, 2013
American Repertory Theater presents
A Banana Bag & Bodice SongPlay
BEOWULF — A Thousand Years of Baggage
Text by Jason Craig
Music by Dave Malloy
Co-Directed by Rod Hipskind & Mallory Catlett
April 16 – May 5
2 Arrow St Cambridge, MA 02138
The company includes Jen Baker (Trombone), Rick Burkhardt (Grendel/Music Director), Lisa Rafaela Clair (Performer), Jason Craig (Beowulf), Anna Ishida (Performer), Jessica Jelliffe (Gendel's Mother), Sam Kulik (Guitar), Mario J. Maggio (Clarinet/Bass Clarinet), Brian McCorkle (King Hrothgar), Blake Newman (Bass), Andy Strain (Trombone), Shaye Troha (Performer), and Peter Wise (Drums). Lighting Design is by Miranda Hardy and Sound Design by Charles Shell.
There is always a bit of an edge to any production at the A.R.T. and by extension its sattelite Oberon. This is true of Beowulf— A Thousand Years of Baggage now at the Oberon. This version of the English/Danish epic poem uses song and silliness to tell the story of the hero and the blood-thirsty monster. In this production, like some less than sterling stanzas in overly long epic poems, the parts are much better than the whole.
The premise of using Beowulf as a theatrical event is rich for mining in narrative devices, potential humor and even fantastic music. Full of smiling pretense, the problem with this Beowulf is a lack of passion and theatrical cohesion. Perhaps, the ensemble had an off night? Perhaps not.
The story goes a little like this:Beowulf is a medieval epic about a superhero that was handed down by word of mouth, The story is set on the ravaged realm of the Danish King Hrothgar. His mead hall has been under attack by the monster Grendel for 14 years, and his warriors have been ruthlessly slaughtered. As with any good superhero, Beowulf comes to his aid to slay the beast and restore peace. He fights and rips off Grendel's arm, kills Grendel's mother and then battles a dragon.
But this being the American Repertory Theatre's version, things in this adaptation are not a straight forward telling of the Old English tale. Instead, it is a musical play that combines severed limbs gore, wetting of the audience, a couple of toy action figures and a lot of academicspeak. And all of this is done with musical acompaniment and backup girl singers. Counter male-dominated stories, the matriarchal aspects of the story are emphasized by Grendel’s mother who is front and center as her son's avenger. And the monster Grendel is a mama’s boy.
As Gendel's mother, singing and emoting well Jessica Jelliffe strongly performed. But her water fight with Beowulf pulled too many verbal and physical punches to be theatrically meaningful or in the least stirring.
The dragon fight scene was a vampy song duet with Beowulf and Lisa Clair. She could have turned into more of a dragon lady to make a theatrical point or had a large dragon tattoo, but she didn't. Instead of being clever, it was just another nicely performed song. But the narrative resolution was unresolved. All of the stagecraft seemed too austere or simple and not clever enough. The passion in the production never percolated.
However, various aspects of the production were outstanding. The musicianship displayed was first rate. And the lighting by Miranda Hardy gave a visual wholeness to the performances.
What was also lacking was a true sense of humor, wit or even whimsey. The occasional potty mouth phrasing should not have been the only humorous notes. Except for the multitalented Rick Burkhardt (Grendel and an academic panelist), there lacked any sense of cleverness or irony in the characterizations. By the way, his best line was about an intimate anatomical space that the name Grendel could be used for.
To be fair, Jason Craig's Beowulf's very physical presence was humorous. An everyman, he was the antihero in physicality, hairstyle, glasses and general looks. He started off right with a funny floating dance around the back of the audience on the bar. But his character could have generated many more comical lines and actions but didn't. Clothed like a Viking tricked out from a thriftshop, his Beowulf was not epic in any way. However, he did have a nice voice. In fact all of the singers had very good voices.
The strength of the production was its musicality. Jen Baker's trombone was superb, and the rest of the six piece band were great. Brian McCorkle's King Hrothgar's singing and accordian playing were fine. His crown was the best costume element in the show.
Many aspects of the show were very well done. Clearly, there was a lot of talent on the stage. And there were a lot of good song lyrics. But in the end, this Beowulf lacked sustained strength and real poetry.