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BEOWULF ACTION FIGURES:  COLLECT’EM ALL!

 

picture - Beowulf: A Thousand Years of BaggageTheater Review

by Cindy Pierre

published April 13, 2009

 

Beowulf: A Thousand Years of Baggage

now playing Off Broadway at Abrons Arts Center

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.

 

picture - Beowulf: A Thousand Years of BaggageBeowulf: 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.

 

picture - Beowulf: A Thousand Years of Baggage

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 with Grendel.

 

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 smile.

 

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 works.

 

cindypierre @ stageandcinema.com

 

 

 
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