review: beowulf a thousand years of baggage

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Beowulf: A Thousand Years of Baggage

By Jason Craig
Music by Dave Malloy
Directed by Rod Hipskind & Mallory Catlett
Starring Banana Bag & Bodice
Joe’s Pub, 425 Lafayette Street
production web site

Reviewed by Martha Wade Steketee
September 4, 2010

first page of Beowulf in Cotton Vitellius A. xv.

Saturday night in the Village.  Yes, table reservation.  Red plush sofas, happy clientele, seeing theatre with food and drink before you.  A Papp-endorsed dinner theatre experience.  Where are we?  Joe’s Pub at the Public Theatre.  No playbill.  It is about the words, right?  A performance space filled to the brim with chairs, music stands, sheet music and soon 8-10 musicians (violin, horns of various kinds, percussion, clarinet .. i couldn’t see all of them), 2 women and 1 man as “chorus” after a fashion and 2 woman and 2 men in larger roles.  As characters we have Beowulf our challenged, bespectacled human hero, Grendel our handsome “monster”, Grendel’s underwater mother and narrator of much of the story along with a second woman.  Performers all unnamed unless one has a press pack, I imagine.  We in the paying audience are just there to be told a tale around the camp fire.  And what a tale it is!

Our Grendel roams the room.  Jazz like thrumming baseline from the musicians beside me in my ringside seat by the bandstand.  Monsters, men in battle, epic tale.  Watching and listening to these pieces of music and movement you hear the words of liberal arts poetry courses and  the music of New Orleans jazz and klezmer riffs (think Balkan Beat Box, according to my husband, along for the ride, who is a BBB fan) syncopated close harmonies (think the jazzy riffs of the a cappella group Betty, a favorite of mine).  The flow of the music and the story feels a bit Brechtian, and not at all derivative of any of these sources.

Our Beowulf is a version of Peter Sellers or Woody Allen in black glasses and non-athletic stance, and Grendel is adorable in body and a jerk in behavior.  As our narrators tell us, Grendel is “a mix of man beast and beast man.”  Neither character is perfect and we want it that way.

This piece, this music, could well become a kind of Peter and the Wolf (the 1936 Sergei Prokofiev wonder I grew up listening to on LP, where instruments are characters and a narrator takes you through a story of a child, his grandfather, some hunters, and a cast of animals) for grown up liberal arts majors.  In the original Beowulf we have themes of retaliation and mourning and this production highlights those beautifully.  “It is better to retaliate than to mourn” we hear from one of the characters.   And there are many paeans to life through action including Beowulf’s statement, rationalizing his violence: “There is art in violence — violence is art.”

This is a story to see and to feel musically and ponder thematically.  And now I’ll search through my bookshelves for a translation of the Old English, fuzzily dated (between 8th and 11th century, no one knows for sure) poem we all studied oh so long ago.

© Martha Wade Steketee (September 6, 2010)

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