Beowulf: A Thousand Years of Baggage
nytheatre.com review by Fred Backus
April 1, 2009
If there's one thing Beowulf: A Thousand Years of Baggage wants to make clear, it's that it's not meant to be a traditional retelling of the famous Anglo-Saxon poem, in which its hero gains fame and riches by defeating the monster Grendel, his monstrous mother, and finally a dragon. These battles are still fought and won, but the story unfolds in what feels like some sort of irony-drenched rock opera, with songs sung into microphones by the hero, the troubled King Hrothgar, and Beowulf's three foes, with backup singing and dancing being performed by two Viking-clad female go-go dancers. Each of the three adversaries are embodied by one of three academics, who frame the piece and pontificate banalities between sparring sessions, so Beowulf seems to find himself in battles both to destroy his epic foes and against the withering touch of academia that threatens to obscure the original verve of the story.
But to effectively challenge an entire mode of understanding and appreciation, however pompous and stuffy that mode may be, a compelling alternative needs to be brought to table. For me that was generally missing, for in spite of all of this production's wit and style—both of which it has in abundance—Beowulf: A Thousand Years of Baggage is infused with such an air of ambivalence that the only theme that really comes through strongly is that nothing is to be taken too seriously. It's clear that playwright Jason Craig thinks little of academics in this context—whom he skewers as a petty and obfuscating force—but what this show offers as an alternative seems neither passionate nor visceral, but rather a smug parody that mocks both the style and content of the original story with a bemused and almost indifferent condescension. Whether this comes off as funny or snarky may be largely a matter of taste, but this ambivalence is rampant in Craig's script, lyrics, and perhaps most symbolically in his portrayal of the titular role. Craig's Beowulf is an anti-hero in heroic drag who stomps around the stage in an intentionally unconvincing display of manly bravado, all the while sporting his glasses in an almost defiant gesture of anti-machismo.
To be sure, there's much in the story and style of this epic poem that is ripe for the mocking. Beowulf is the prototypical action-hero adventure story, and this testosterone-laden tale of guts, glory, and manly aggression written a thousand years ago would seem a ripe and fitting target for reinterpretation. The rudiments of such a re-interpretation are here, with the monster Grendel and his mother cast as somewhat sympathetic and misunderstood misanthropes who are reacting to the bullying chauvinism of a male-dominated society. To my mind it's an interesting take on the story, but it's just the sort of thing that an academic might—and in this version does—come up with, and in addition to pooh-poohing such intellectual pursuits, the piece quite consciously keeps a safe distance from exploring any themes in a way that could possibly be construed as a conviction.
This seems to be the house style here, to point to rather than inhabit: a style that is clearly a conscious choice rather than a lack of ability. Indeed, that Banana Bag and Bodice is a company with a wealth of talent is obvious—Craig's script is nothing if not clever, while director Rod Hipskind and the design team as a whole does an excellent job creating an evocative and appealing spectacle. Dave Malloy, who doubles as the cowardly accordion-playing King Hrothgar, has composed a series of numbers that incorporate a wide palette of musical styles that are both eerie and catchy at the same time, while Anna Ishida and Shaye Trohe—who double as the two back up dancers/singers—have done a great job choreographing the piece with zest and imagination. The main performers are all quite good as well, nailing key aspects of their characters while skillfully staying safely un-invested in them.
In the end, Beowulf: A Thousand Years of Baggage feels defined not by what it passionately embraces or by what it passionately rejects, but rather by what it nonchalantly dismisses. For me, the way this piece at once casually and relentlessly takes the piss out of everything offers an experience with some mirth but little joy, and the accrued negativity of the endeavor—whether intentional or not—leads me to wonder what it was about Beowulf in particular that served as inspiration here. When, towards the end of the show, Beowulf berates one hapless scholar towards the end of the piece for "making things simpler than they are which complicates things," I couldn't help but feel some sympathy for academics everywhere. At least they seem like they're trying.