A Monster, His Mom, And Beowulf Walk Into A Bar ...

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CAMBRIDGE, Mass. — So what’s the big deal with “Beowulf?” Even most English majors would be hard-pressed to give you a convincing answer. After listening to Seamus Heaney read his acclaimed translation of the epic saga I’m still not sure I could give it much of a go. The hero’s journey, good vs. evil, great storytelling, evolution of the English language somewhere between the 7th and 11th centuries. Then I’d throw in “Game of Thrones.” Oh yeah, Freud. Yadda Yadda. I don’t know that I could even come up with a third Yadda.

That’s the jumping off point for “Beowulf: A Thousand Years of Baggage,” the latest production at Oberon under the American Repertory Theater banner. If the title isn’t enough of a giveaway that this production is not in the Heaney mode be advised that the production company is Banana Bag & Bodice, who previously workshopped the show at A.R.T. in 2010 and brought it back the following year for the Emerging America Festival.

So we begin with three academics discussing the epic even less ably than I just did, though slowly they begin to shed their academic skins and become characters in the story — Grendel, the monster; his mother; and a dragon. As we are free to sip our mead, or blue martinis, from the Oberon bar, the BB&B aim is clearly to demystify “Beowulf,” to shift its focus from Apollonian interpretation to Dionysian storytelling.

And that’s all to the good as far as it goes. There is a fine seven-piece band on stage with two suitably sexy backup singers mixing up Kurt Weill, klezmer music and toe-tapping mid-tempo rock written by Dave Malloy (“Three Pianos”) The language is lush and accessible, written by Jason Craig, who also plays Beowulf.

The mood is infectious.

Jessica Jeliffe as Grendel's mother with Rick Burkhardt as Grendel. (Evgenia Eliseeva
Jessica Jeliffe as Grendel's mother with Rick Burkhardt as Grendel. (Evgenia Eliseeva

His horn-rimmed glasses give Craig something of an Elvis Costello look, making him seem as much king of the geeks as King of the Geats. (Beowulf hails from Geatland in Sweden.) Rick Burkhardt’s Grendel isn’t any more ferocious than the academic Burkhardt also plays.

This is all purposefully ironic, presumably all part of the demystifying, personalization, contemporization project. Still, these are curious, anti-theatrical choices by directors Rod Hipskind and Mallory Catlett, almost the opposite ones that Diane Paulus made in “The Donkey Show,” which opened Oberon. You could say that the fight scenes are comic-book in nature, but that’s doing graphic comics like “The Dark Knight” or “Sandman” a disservice. The battles here are more reminiscent of celebrity darts. Grendel’s oversized severed limb gives you pause after the Marathon, certainly, but we can chalk that and talk of terrorism up to bad timing rather than bad taste.

In fact, the main problem with “Beowulf” is that after the first 15 minutes or so nothing whatsoever seems to be at stake. It’s more an exercise in clever schoolboy (and girl) drollery than it is in smart or emotional theatrics. It’s too bad, because I think that Banana Bag & Bodice is on to something here, but its cleverness is ultimately as academic as English Lit 101. Even with the mead.

Here's Diane Paulus's take on the production.

This program aired on April 19, 2013. The audio for this program is not available.

Ed Siegel Twitter Critic-At-Large
Now retired and contributing as a critic-at-large, Ed Siegel was the editor of The ARTery.