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Second Place Winner of the 2010 New York City Theater Review Contest

Beowulf: A Thousand Years of Baggage

review by Duncan Pflaster

 

When most people think of Beowulf, they don't think of musical theatre. They most likely don't think of rock music, MTV choreography, or humor. If anything, they might remember other people's adaptations of the story (Neil Gaiman's recent CGI film comes to mind), or studying the dusty tale in English class.  And this is what makes Jason Craig's text for Beowulf: A Thousand Years of Baggage so interesting -- not merely a retelling of the tale of a man fighting monsters, it becomes the story of a cultural icon fighting the historical critics who want to define and explicate him.

 

The play begins with three academics (Christopher Kuckenbaker, Jessica Jelliffe, and Beth Wilmurt) sitting down to present a panel or lecture on Beowulf. They all are very pleased with themselves and their knowledge of their topic (although they all contradict each other), until the feedback from their microphones begins to morph into an overture and they themselves become characters in the tale.

 

The author also plays Beowulf in an inspired turn, his large-but-doughy glasses-and-leather physique contrasting with the academics' description of the man, allowing the audience to create their own Beowulf in that contrasting mental space. The script is fascinating -- Charles Ludlam once said that the verbal tricks of Joyce's Finnegan's Wake frightened the literary world into years of naturalism and minimalism -- here Craig delivers a new and poetic language composed of repetition, tautology, current slang, Middle English, and profanity. His story takes unexpected turns and entertains while making a very clear point about the reductive power of criticism.

 

The music, by recent Jonathan Larson award-winner Dave Malloy (who also plays King Hrothgar), is wonderful – it feels a bit like Weill, with those swinging trombones, but has the power of rock and roll behind it. Like the text, the music also does not shy away from strange and unusual modes of expression. Sometimes the volume of the music makes it difficult to understand the words (CDs sold in the lobby are more coherent), which detracts from the theatrical experience. The show is also presented at the Abrons Arts Center Henry Street Settlement, which, while a lovely proscenium stage, distances the audience a bit from the action, precluding a more visceral reaction to the show.

 

The cast is quite impressive. Craig is a hoot as the overblown hero and Malloy makes a fine impression as Hrothgar. The academics each get their moment to shine, with some amazing standout moments. Anna Ishida and Shaye Troha, as the Warriors, practically aerobicize through the play, while belting at the tops of their lungs. It's a very intriguing and very funny play. It's worth a look, and several hours of after-show debate.

 
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