nytheatre.com review by Martin Denton
October 15, 2005
I'm sorry to report that Irish Repertory Theatre's production of Lenny Pickett and Lindsey Turner's "ritualistic 21st century rock opera" adaptation of Beowulf must be reckoned a failure.
The problems with this show, which are legion, start with its self-identification as a rock opera. Rock music usually has a back beat (read this, for example). This Beowulf, scored for harp and harmonium (!), has almost no beat at all; neither is it as loud or interesting as a rocked adventure story ought to be (last year's splendid punk Titus X stands as a great exemplar, in my book, of what bracing rock can do for a medieval legend).
Lindsey Turner's adaptation and lyrics (the latter co-written with composer Lenny Pickett) eschew rhyme almost all the time in favor of often clunky blank verse; near the end, I found myself unable to follow the story, such was the lack of clarity in the words spoken and sung on stage.
And yet these difficulties notwithstanding, Pickett's music and Turner's approach suggest that a really interesting ritualized music-theatre (not rock opera) Beowulf exists in this material, if only the right director and theatre could be found to pull it together. Alas, here's the real trouble with this Beowulf: Irish Rep and its leader Charlotte Moore—who are only to be applauded for their ambition in attempting to mount this piece—are so resolutely unsuited for this project that it's doomed right from the outset. The small boxy space can't contain even four or five male actors trying to dance exuberantly—they have to be so careful not to stumble over each other or into the audience that passion and freedom of movement never enter into their equation. Neither is there sufficient room for Bob Flanagan's most extravagant puppet creation—a Julie Taymor-esque dragon at the play's climax—to launch the surprise attack on characters and audience that would make it a coup de theatre: it has to sidle in from the lobby, hovering next to some unwary audience members before finally awkwardly rounding a corner (beside a supporting beam, obstructing its journey from most of the spectators) and then lumbering onto the stage to do its thing.
Moore's staging, meanwhile, flits uncomfortably between story theatre, kids' theatre, and more baldly ritualistic methods. Some of the time—and the very simplistic lyrics support this notion—it feels like this wants to be a Beowulf for kids, with actors directly addressing us to narrate the story. Other times, as when the play's actors don masks and operate puppets (with all the workings exposed), it seems like the creators are trying to comment on the nature of story-telling as they re-enact this particular tale. And at other moments—the arrival of the giant dragon is one—it appears that Moore wants to give us an all-out sensory theatre experience on the order of Ellen Stewart's epic renderings of Greek tragedy. But the inconsistency of style keeps any of these ideas from taking hold or working; and none is particularly well-realized, even as a set piece.
So what we have, finally, is pretty much a mess, albeit an admirably audacious one. Even mask/puppet designer Flanagan's contributions are uneven: the headdress he's created for the monster Grendel's mother looks like something the natives on Gilligan's Island would wear. Randall Klein's vaguely homoerotic costumes (leather and modish-looking mesh pretending to be chain mail) don't help, and in fact hinder; Richard Barth's very wispy Beowulf, who spends more time telling us in song that he's a legend and/or a myth than actually demonstrating why, is problematic, too. Indeed, the only cast member who seems genuinely comfortable is Jay Lusteck, who every once in a while is called upon to sing in a big operatic voice and does so with real brio.
Pickett and Turner need to work on focusing their script in terms of theme and clarity; and then maybe they can find a more comfortable home for their piece, in whatever (single!) style they choose to settle on.