Arts Listings

Shotgun Presents a New ‘Beowulf’

By Ken Bullock Special to the Planet
Thursday May 29, 2008 - 10:13:00 AM

The dressing of the stage—Ashby Stage, that is—says it all in advance of curtain. With a platform that makes the audience feel savagely ringside or fashionably rampside; a long counter below the apron with microphones set for a panel, backed by a sextet at the ready; a bank of fans as a wall behind—it’s clear the epic poem of Anglo-Saxon academe is to be subjected to a deconstruction via The Media, Big Time Wrestling and Vegas floor shows ... alliterative Beowulf has finally arrived. A little unkempt, with a sweep of gore-matted hair, in the carefully dishevelled, talking head-laden, close-up world of the early 21st century, replete with Rabbit’s Foot Mead for sale outside (sweet, but not cloying) to swill while said hero waxes grandiloquent. 

For a rhapsode’s night’s work, this word-hoard with chewy epithets took centuries to resurface, buoyed up by the Germanic “Volk” movement and the historic nostalgia of Victoriana. Now maybe a different tradition is invoked by Banana, Bag & Bodice in co-production with Shotgun: something more like James Joyce’s model mythographer, Vico. Defining History as the Time of the Gods, then Heroes and finally Men, the recondite Neapolitan would see this Beowulf subject to the backwash, the undertow after a populist wave of the Age of Just Folks, diced up with pop-psych commentary and pop song, the story of a backwater hero who hit the big time long after his own had fizzled. 

Seamus Heany’s bestselling translation brought the heroic Geat back into the limelight, but the best way into the hoary web of words in clean English poesy is the first truly modern version, which UC Press put out over a half century back, by the now-nonagenarian Poet Laureate of Scotland, Edwin Morgan, who conferred the acid flavor of his World War II experiences to this fighting saga of eld.  

Beowulf: A Thousand Years of Baggage (A Songplay) reads the show’s title. Banana, Bag & Bodice’s cofounder, Jason Craig, has written the book and the lyrics, besides handily taking on the role of the hero, who poses in silhouette, then appears by slicing his way through the screen, while chorines Anna Ishida and Shaye Troha (of Killing My Lobster) wail and wheel in their chainmail like Vegas Valkyries or Busby Berkeley Berserkers in Kaibrina Buck’s costumery on R. Black’s striking set, lit by Miranda Hardy with Brendan West’s sound design.  

Dave Malloy has put together a combo, the Heorot Band (including musical saw), that plays the gamut from klezmer to (appropriately enough) snatches of heavy metal. Malloy also doubles, borne onstage in a kind of palanquin, as “Mr. King Hrothgar, Sir.” Such is the title Beowulf uses to address his summoner to arms when he reports in song, “Well, I ripped him up good.” His ghastly, shredded opponent, Grendel, played as a sympathetic geek (as per horror flick tradition) by Christopher Kuckenbacker, has something more than a soccer mom in Jessica Jelliffe’s angular rendition of a monster’s smothering stage mother from hell. Beowulf rips both up good, when he’s not preening, posturing or sulking in his tent, playing with Action Hero figurines. But those rent asunder stick around anyway, outliving their bestial roles, as talking heads on a stately academic panel, joining sprightly, psychobabbling Cameron Galloway. 

Directed by Rod Hipskin of foolsFURY (with whom Jelliffe performed brilliantly), the B. B. & B. talent for movement and action is, strangely, only fitfully revealed. There’s a lot more trash-talk in the ring than limb-wrenching, and even more metalanguage on the panel than raucous, raunchy song on the ramp behind. The concept is not so deep as Grendel & Dam’s grotto, but the logistics are complex, so the fun of it—and perhaps its substance—will grow during the run (and in the New York version to follow). But for the moment, despite delirious Dane production numbers and aquariums turning red with subaquatic bloodletting, this otherwise-impressive Beowulf is so far missing something of the charm and craziness of the olden farceurs—well, not the mimes of the Middle Ages, but the middle-aged might remember with glee the slapstick epigonery visited upon myth and fable by the likes of Ernie Kovacs and Sid Caesar, or the word-hoards of Lord Buckley and Stan Freeberg expended on same. Or that early limited animation cut-up, “Fractured Fairytales.”