BEOWULF ACTION FIGURES: COLLECT’EM ALL!
by Cindy Pierre
published April 13, 2009
Beowulf: A Thousand Years of Baggage
now playing Off Broadway at Abrons Arts
through April 18
There may not be motion capture technology and a
sultry Angelina Jolie to up the ante, but Banana Bag & Bodice's Beowulf: A Thousand Years of Baggage is chock full of not only
visual effects, but sound effects too. Dressed up as a rock opera with action figures as a side attraction, the tale of the Geatish hero that
slew a monster, his mother and a dragon comes alive in a very innovative and creative way. But before you get to all the fun, you have to wade
through a slow beginning.
Beowulf: A Thousand Years of Baggage, adapted by Jason Craig, opens with
a literary press conference of sorts with Jessica Jelliffe, Christopher Kuckenbaker and Beth Wilmurt as academics waxing not so poetic on
the merits of the poem. Despite a few chuckle-inducing moments from the dry humor, this intro goes on far too long after the laughs have
ended. Luckily, the show segues into an animated display of bravado and Norse hijinks that may make you scratch your head at times, but
never leaves you bored.
Shaye Troha and Anna Ishida burst onto the stage, clad
in budget warrior gear and singing vocals through 2 of the 4 mics that are dangling from the ceiling for easy access. Though they are a
driving force for the show, their choreography is sometimes lazy and monotonous during Grendel's attack. The terror that the monster Grendel,
represented by a normal looking Kuckenbaker, spreads across King Hrothgar's (Dave Malloy) kingdom forces him to call on a hero to save the
day. But before we can meet Beowulf, we get to know Grendel as both savage and devoted son when he brings his mother (Jessica Jelliffe), a
strong presence with haunting vocals, a dinner of man limbs. The arm in a bucket entree is funny, but nothing compared to the duet between
Grendel and Mom that borders slightly on the incestuous.
Beowulf, played by Craig, comes in looking like a TNA wrestler tryout, with the stature of a hero and a laughable ego. His duet
with the King is somber and subdued, but comical in light of his goofy image. Although the rock, jazz and electronica musical arrangements
– played by a talented orchestra that are ever present onstage – are strong and match every emotion and scene, the song lyrics are often
silly and a stretch. Yet, what better place to experiment with the frivolous than a poem about underwater dungeons, monsters and dragons?
Plus, the songs in the second act improve right from the beginning with Beowulf singing “I ripped him up good” after his violent battle
Rather than focus on the thousand years of analysis,
possible Christian and Biblical similarities and the importance of kinship, this Beowulf focuses on dramatizing the fun and the art, due in
part to Rod Hipskind's facetious direction. For instance, Grendel and Beowulf not only appear live, but they have action figure counterparts
that remind us of the images that are usually associated with the characters. At one point, Beowulf the man even interacts with his tiny
counterpart to hilarious effect. Instead of omitting the scene in which Beowulf rips off Grendel's arm, a monstrous arm falls surprisingly
from the ceiling and Grendel crawls home to show his mom his extra deformity. Even the underwater battle between Beowulf and Grendel's mom is
represented by both regular and mini size water tanks that simultaneously mimic the ripples in the sea. This production knows how to make you
Although the show should have ended after the second
battle and fades fast when the dragon encounter is re-enacted, it is still a remarkable achievement in unpredictable wonder. There's a whole
lot of crazy going on, but in light of Banana Bag & Bodice's mission to “redefine the traditional notion of performance,” crazy
cindypierre @ stageandcinema.com