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At Trinity – ‘Beowulf’ brings wild energy, irreverence to classic tale

Review by – Laurence J. Sasso, Jr.

First the dry part. (Let’s get it over with.)

The epic poem Beowulf is a cornerstone in the canon of English literature. Perhaps this happened by default. Written in England sometime between 700 and 1000 A.D., it has been widely celebrated and studied since the 19th century, largely no doubt because it is among the earliest surviving literary work in English to have been written down.

Beowulf was somehow committed to paper in an age when the tales, legends, and poems defining the culture were passed down orally by storytellers called scops. Oddly enough, its subject matter was not British, but Scandinavian. It is likely that it was brought to England by invaders around the year 500. By the way, it was originally written in Old English, a language not unlike German and unintelligible to the current day ear. Okay, then.

This might not sound like a very promising premise to base a wild and raucous musical play on, but Trinity Repertory Company succeeds in doing just that, delivering a highly entertaining, risk-taking show that you won’t be able to see and remain sitting still. You can’t leave without forming a strong opinion either.

In the end, viewers might not like it, but they won’t yawn. In fact, if you tried you might get cursed out by a sword-wielding, leather-kilt-wearing warrior who confesses he suffers from dyslexia and who seems unable to express his thoughts without great effort, but he keeps on trying anyway. (As for the cursing. . .well some of our most frequently used profanities originated with the Anglo-Saxons who gave us Old English, and they are on prominent display in this show.)

As a result of its unique place in the history of letters, Beowulf has become the darling of professors who are intent on analyzing the origins of the English literary tradition. It has been researched and dissected and written about to the point that it has come to seem a kind of pedagogical dead horse. This partially explains the title of the Trinity production: Beowulf A Thousand Years of Baggage.

Whether its creators, writer and lyricist Jason Craig and composer Dave Malloy, are aiming to debunk the importance assigned to the story by academia by reducing the story to caricature, or whether they aim to remake and hence popularize a muscular and bloody heroic adventure tale that they have stripped of its encumbrances, it is clear that they have no reluctance to knock over some of the icons in the pantheon with their uninhibited re-telling of the epic.

Set in Denmark, the story recounts the arrival of the hero, Beowulf, who comes to rescue the land of King Hrothgar from Grendel, a hideous monster who lives at the bottom of a lake. Beowulf, a simple fighter who understands his purpose and sometimes little else, is a workmanlike warrior. After he kills Grendel he also kills his mother who is bent on revenge for the loss of her son. He sees his job and does it. Reflection, introspection, and self-analysis are not his thing. Warriors don’t feel guilty for doing warrior-like things.

Sound heavy? Not in the hands of the author, the composer, and director Curt Columbus, Trinity’s artistic director. In fact it proves to be an outrageous romp.

On stage through October 9 in the Elizabeth and Malcolm Chace Theater, upstairs at the Lederer Theater Center, 201 Washington Street, Providence, Beowulf A Thousand Years of Baggage may be unlike anything you have ever seen.

As the show opens, the audience finds a table equipped with microphones at center stage. It is the unmistakable setting for a panel discussion. Soon it is peopled by three professorial types who launch into a gibbering discussion of the story of Beowulf in mock academic speak.

Almost immediately the metaphorical stuffing starts coming out of their shirts as they squabble about the significance of different parts of the story and the interpretation of the characters. Then everything speeds up.

Hrothgar, the king, marches into view and provides the setup mostly in song, telling of Heorot, the enormous mead hall that is the seat of his kingdom and noting his problem with the murderous Grendel.

A spotlight in the upper reaches of the set bearing the Batman logo makes a mute statement about the production’s satirical tone as Beowulf himself enters the scene, a mercenary wearing an American flag like a cloak, ready to do his work. Before long he is singing a song about his body and its virtues. A Greek chorus of five warriors supports him like backup singers. Henna haired harridans, they are dressed in 1950’s style football pants and pads.

Playing multiple roles, two of the academics from the panel morph into Grendel and his mother. The confrontation between him and Beowulf is played like a scene from The Godfather, as Grendel is found drinking wine at a bistro table. Quickly, Beowulf tears off his arm and kills him.

At intermission an actor passes a beach ball to the audience, explaining that it is Grendel’s head and it must be batted around until everyone has touched it. Weird fun like that defuses the aura of violence and creates a sense of absurd playfulness.

In act two Beowulf finishes what he came to do by dispatching Grendel’s mother. Here the creators of the play pull their punches to amusing effect. Rather than another limb-tearing bloodbath, the struggle is portrayed using a device that the professors would applaud, an overhead projector. With stick figures drawn on plastic strips fed through the projector, the antagonists battle to the death using the cartoon characters to stand for themselves.

Quirky and idiosyncratic, the play’s 17 songs aren’t really showstopper material, but several of them are compelling or funny. However, one called “Not Only,” sung by Rachael Warren (Warrior One), contains a high note that Warren hits with enough intensity and trueness to pop rivets out of a girder.

The arc of the story demands that Beowulf must complete the cycle from avenging hero to mere mortal. So, the end of the poem coincides with the end of the man, fate in the form of a dragon bite that as a warrior he readily accepts. It is the destiny he was born to fulfill, and he shrugs and gives himself up to it as Janice Duclos, portraying the dragon, sings the appropriate stanzas of the poem in the original Old English. Speaking of original, this production is certainly that, which is kind of amazing for an adaptation of a supposedly worn-out vehicle.

Part bizarre send-up, part adoring tribute, and part Brechtian deadpan flight of the imagination Beowulf A Thousand Years of Baggage is above all a lot of fun, albeit provocative and leavened with barbed bits of satire.

Charlie Thurston is superb as Beowulf, full of body-builder swagger and a dense earnestness. Stephen Berenson hits all the right notes, both in his interpretation of his characters (Academic One and Grendel) and in his singing.

Anne Scurria excels as hormonal Academic Two and as Grendel’s Mother. She shifts parts effortlessly and kills it with her songs “Grendel’s Death,” sung with Grendel, and “Bring It.”

Janice Duclos is Academic Three and the Dragon. Her experience and skill at underplaying to great effect prove perfect for the roles. She has the challenging task of singing the last part of the poem in Old English, and it comes through as just right.

Joe Wilson struts boldly as Hrothgar, dishing out the perfect doses of insouciance and arch self-absorption and singing with power and compelling grace.

The aforementioned Rachael Warren is fine as Warrior One. Her cohorts Rebecca Gibel as Warrior Two, Rachel Clausen as Warrior Three, Laura Lyman Payne as Warrior Four, and Brad Wilson as Warrior Five all do very well.

The excellent musicians for the show are Michael Rice, Karen Orsi, and Mike Sartini, with Rice being the director. Olivera Gajic designed some far out costumes, and Jude Sandy choreographed the movement. Michael McGarty’s set with lots of scaffolding and walkways is very serviceable. At some moments there are suitably odd electronic noises.

When all is said and done Beowulf A Thousand Years of Baggage has a little bit of everything and a whole lot of appeal.