Midway through “Beowulf - A Thousand Years of Baggage,” a new Banana Bag & Bodice production playing at OBERON until May 5, Grendel’s mother emerges in the blue eerie light to mourn the death of her son and accuse Beowulf of being “a filthy fascist that killed a slightly retarded child.” This is the kind of offbeat and unapologetic tomfoolery that characterizes the rest of the play, which has a new script written by Jason Craig and based on the heroic epic poem. With a mix of folksy belting, thumb war games, and a mock magician’s act, “Beowulf” could hardly be more genre-bending and avant-garde. At times it risks being as raw and in-your-face as Lady Gaga’s meat dress, only longer and less symbolic. Though the show’s direction, lyrics, and overall concept prove so shockingly anarchic that it is hard to digest the performance, its original score and talented singing provides some redemption. Yet while the raucous, eccentric troupe of performers seeks to defy expectations, they fundamentally fail to sell their belief that quirky and quality can coexist.
“Beowulf” charts the heroic deeds of Beowulf (Jason Craig), entreated by King Hrothgar of the Danes (Brian McCorkle) to help get rid of the man-eating monster Grendel (Rick Burkhardt). This interpretation of the epic poem is steered by the chorus-like narrations and interjections of three academics, (Burkhardt, Lisa Clair, and Jessica Jelliffe), gathering to discuss the text. This framing device makes for well-timed academic quips about “thematics” and the “testeronic archetype” that do well to poke fun at the stilted academic establishment. However, the idea soon becomes exhausted by the general awkwardness of the actors and their lines. In one scene, the academics monotonously interject into the rowdy action of the plot to report, “We witness death and carnage constructed by the Grendel beast.” Clair and Jelliffe are counterbalanced by a sillier, more inebriated Burkhardt—a frivolous male persona who prefers to flail water bottles and gallivant amongst the audience instead of dissecting the poem. Rather than serving up light-hearted entertainment, Burkhardt seems more of a hindrance to the plot. Later in the play, when he doubles up as the character of Grendel, he continues to play both the academic and Grendel as the same character—that of the thumb-sucking fool—rather than differentiating between the two distinct characters.
As one of the more successful elements of the show, the music succeeds at furthering the concept of pastiche performance. Composer Dave Molloy creates buzzing techno music and eclectic fusions of funk, techno, gypsy, and folk to provide a modern spin. The singing talent helps to redeem some of the weaknesses of the script and acting. Back-up singers Anna Ishida and Shaye Troha harmonize well and double successfully as back-up dancers and warrior friends to Beowulf. McCorkle blesses his ballads with rock-blues vocals, croaking and wincing his way through a hipster rendition of a meaty, Nordic sound. Sporting a beard and musty dressing robe, McCorkle is more Kings of Leon than King of the Danes as he turns the passionate confession “I need Beowulf” into a soulful version of “Someone Like You.” His voice is supported by the gypsy strains of the clarinet and his own performance on the accordion and piano. Another singing highlight is Jelliffe and her high-octane, sultry cabaret number as Grendel’s mother. In the midst of the show’s bloodshed, phallic imagery, and swearing, Jelliffe offers a rare moment of maternal love and loss, singing, “I held that little flower in my arms.”
The titular hero’s own dramatic entrance verges on ridiculous. Craig swaggers through the audience like an old, raunchy rocker long past his prime and proudly points to his parts as he sings repeatedly about “horses and swords.” “I take on evil wearing only naked man-muscle,” boasts Beowulf, a self-proclaimed man’s man. Just as in the rest of the performance, the melodramatic and the farcical are never far apart. The showdown scene between Grendel and Beowulf is reduced to childish thumb wrestling and games of tag, ending with a dismembered arm falling from the ceiling.
There are glimmers of well-considered philosophy in the midst of the gore and child’s play, though. The performance draws attention to the clash between the book and the sword, rendered visually by the opposing stances of the academic and the warrior Beowulf and suggesting a tension between the academically derived and the physically lived experience.
The interactive elements of the performance—characters skidding and fighting through the audience, flying water, and flashing spotlights—do little to improve the entertainment factor of the show. For all its attempts to defy expectations and serve up a fresh take on an old classic, “Beowulf” proves more weird than wonderful.
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