Presented by American Repertory Theatre
A songplay by Banana Bag and Bodice
Text and lyrics by Jason Craig
Music by Dave Malloy
Directed by Rod Hipskind, Mallory Catlett
Review by Gillian Daniels
(Cambridge) An aggressively weird audio feast, this Beowulf is a musical take on the millennia-old epic-poem. The dialogue performs the syntax gymnastics of Seamus Heaney’s translation while the songs are guttural and set to a frantic, pleasing percussion. Banana Bag and Bodice’s production, though, both honors the source material while dissecting it.
It’s a gory rock opera with a funny touch, sometimes somber, sometimes goofy, and sometimes uneven in tone. Juxtaposing silly moments with horror, though, gives the show a raucous charm. There are some pretty great jokes mixed in with a few flat ones but the main draw is that, really, Beowulf: A Thousand Years of Baggage is just plain cool.
Beowulf (playwright Jason Craig) is a gangly wild man of a hero, at home in the odd mixture of theater and song of the mead hall. His antics are ludicrous by contemporary standards and his every action is narrated and critiqued by three “academics,” played by Lisa Clair, Rick Burkhardt, and Jessica Jelliffe. They only occasionally seem to know what they’re talking about. The faux academics bring a smart, reflective layer to an already amusing show, but when Burkhardt begins to mimic the deeds of the monstrous villain, Grendel, their role expands outward from that of solely meta-commentary.
In the set-up the Oberon has going for Beowulf: A Thousand Years of Baggage, patrons can drink mead while enjoying the performance. It really resurrects the mead hall conjured in the poem or, rather, the place where the poem was meant to be consumed. This backdrop is an excellent bit of added flare to an already tight show.
After seeing it, I’ve considered going back with friends for a repeated viewing or two.The songs are absolute earworms and I’ve sought them out on YouTube since the play ended. Brian McCorkle is an immense talent, both as a pianist and King Hrothgar, along with Mario Maggio on clarinet and Sam Kulik on guitar. Anna Ishida and Shaye Troha are also hilarious backup singers and “warrior” vocalists.
In the no-man’s land between textual analysis and the contemporary hipster worship of the authentically old, Beowulf just hits a nice, sweet spot. It’s true to the uneasy spirit and sadness of the Old English poem. By no means is it a normal show, just refreshingly peculiar and memorable.