Beowulf, A Thousand Years of Baggage. Book & lyrics by Jason Craig; music by Dave Malloy; directed by Curt Columbus. Trinity Repertory Company, Providence, RI. September 8 - October 9, 2016.
Reviewed by Kevin J. Harty (firstname.lastname@example.org)
Medievalism and a fascinating example of Brecht’s epic theatre are on full display at Providence’s Trinity Rep. Originally presented in 2008 by Berkeley’s Shogun Players, Beowulf, A Thousand Years of Baggage stages the Anglo-Saxon poem as a rock opera that opens with three academics, armed with transparencies and an overhead projector no less, seated at a table about to deliver their conference papers on Beowulf—think of the worst possible sessions at the annual medieval congresses in Leeds or in Kalamazoo. At stake in the academic babble are weighty matters such as the proper pronunciation of Geat and Heorot, and whether the underwater lair of Grendel’s Mother is a feminist response to the oppressive patriarchy of the male/hero-centered world of the poem. But, before we can doze off—again think of Leeds or of Kalamazoo—one of the panelists is transformed into Grendel in all his fury as he rips the head off of one of Hrothgar’s thanes—substituted for by what appears to be a Ken or GI Joe doll. Eventually the other two panelists will be transformed into the poem’s other two monsters—Grendel’s Mother and the dragon from Beowulf’s fatal final battle.
For the production, the folks at Trinity have basically cleared out their main theatre space and filled it with scaffolding, risers and planks, leaving behind odd bits of stage props perhaps from other production, perhaps not—a ship’s wheel, a cannon, a clown’s head, a table from an Italian restaurant—later used by Grendel when he dines on bread stick bones and pasta with thane-meat sauce Bolognese.
The lobby bar had Grendel’s Grog and Battle Axe Malbec on offer, and the house staff distributed free cups of Grendel’s blood—cranberry juice—during the interval. One could have wished for some mead, and definitely for some tee shirts. At the end of the interval, audience members got to play volley ball with the cast using a balloon that was supposedly Grendel’s head. The highlight of the production was the singing in Old English of the passage in the poem describing the battle between the agéd Beowulf and the dragon—the song was truly moving.
Kevin J. Hary
La Salle University