An Open Access Review Journal Encouraging Critical Engagement with the Continuing Process of Inventing the Middle Ages

September 26, 2016

Beowulf, A Thousand Years of Baggage

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 (

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. 

Costumes are a pastiche from a grab bag of styles. Hrothgar wears a silver lamé evening jacket. Beowulf—who is more brawn than brains (or, as we academic might have it, he is a bit heavier on fortitudo than on sapientia)—sports a pleather kilt and black football shoulder pads, to which at first an American flag is attached.  In his battle with the dragon at the end of the play, he will don a winged helmet and a maroon cloak. The academics are appropriately dowdy in their attire when they play academics, but easily transformed into marvelous giant puppets thanks to the addition of all kinds of props.  Grendel’s Mother—at first a frumpy feminist academic of a certain age and type—is further transformed into her monstrous shape with the aid of turquoise swimming flippers and a matching snorkeling mask. The musicians too sport a variety of outfits including deer heads and antlers, and their music reflects a mix of styles from Klezmer to heavy rock to country to the balladic. As I indicated early, the production is nothing if not Brechtian.

The production also takes aim at contemporary issues. Hrothgar is cast against type—the actor playing him is young and African American—and four of his five thanes are gender-bending shield maidens.  Grendel and his Mother are clearly foreigners—terrorists even—of which to be wary.  The heroic idea that it is better to get vengeance than to mourn has some uncomfortable echoes today. Hrothgar and his court make the mistake of letting their guard down after Grendel is dispatched. Nonetheless, act one ends on a high note, though a banner drops from the ceiling to proclaim “Mission Accomplished”—pace George W. Bush’s 2003 speech aboard the aircraft carrier USS Abraham Lincoln.  Both Grendel and Beowulf, we are told, are mentally challenged—Beowulf admits to being dyslexic.  Grendel’s Mother even lectures Beowulf about his attack on Grendel as if the eponymous hero were a playground bully. 

The acting and singing are uniformly excellent.  The humor is genuine—the battle between Grendel’s Mother and Beowulf is staged using an overhead projector and transparencies in a style that echoes Javanese shadow puppetry (another nod to epic theatre)—and includes an excursus on the magic of some swords including Excalibur (another nod to—against?—the academy, in this case with a dig at the scholarly obsession to compare and contrast almost anything—when we were in graduate school, my classmates and I thought about founding a journal called Non-influence Studies).

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. 

Part of the premise of the production is that Beowulf is a boring fossil that generations of high school and college students have been forced to study. But the production itself belies that premise as it demonstrates that the poem is far from boring or fossilized.  It continues to speak to us—I had just finished discussing Beowulf with a class of first-years and the members of my senior seminar before attending the Trinity production.  Certainly both groups of students found much to admire and to discuss in the poem. 

Beowulf, which continues to have an amazing afterlife, more properly has a continuing legacy, not a thousand years of baggage—despite the efforts of some academics at conferences.  That legacy includes any number of novels, multiple graphic novels (a least one, Kid Beowulf, an eight-part series), other musical works, several operas, a spate of recent films, an on-going television series on the Esquire Channel (that is admittedly a hybrid of a Western and Game of Thrones), individual episodes and story arcs in several unrelated television series (Xena: Warrior Princess and Star Trek: Voyager), board and video games, and comics.

In 2010, Trinity staged a wonderful production of Camelot set in a London Underground station during the Blitz. Trinity’s production of Beowulf is, likewise, an example of stage medievalism at its best—but I really do wish that there had been tee shirts for sale with the wonderful poster—see above—for the production on them—life may in part be a series of missed marketing opportunities!

Beowulf, A Thousand Years of Baggage, book and lyrics by Jason Craig, music by Dave Malloy, direction by Curt Columbus, musical direction by Michael Rice, choreography by Jude Sandy, set by Michael McGarty, costumes by Olivera Gajic, lighting by Dan Scully, sound by Peter Sasha Hurowitz, puppets by Soshanna Utchenik, production stage managed by Kelly Hardy.  With Charlie Thurston (Beowulf), Stephen Berenson (Academic One/Grendel), Anne Scurria (Academic Two/Grendel’s Mother), Janice Duclos (Academic Three/Dragon), Joe Wilson, Jr. (Hrothgar),  Rachel Warren (Warrior One), Rebecca Gibel (Warrior Two), Rachel Clausen (Warrior Three), Laura Lyman Payne (Warrior Four), and Brad Wilson (Warrior Five), also with Michael Rice on keyboard, Karen Orsi on guitar, and Mike Sartini on percussion.  A production of Trinity Repertory Company, the State Theatre of Rhode Island, at the Lederer Theater Center in Providence; Curt Columbus, Artistic Director, and Tom Parrish, Executive Director.

Kevin J. Hary
La Salle University