Though it begins with three "academics" discussing an epic poem, Beowulf: A Thousand Years of Baggage isn't your great-great-grandmother's Old English version. You'll probably guess as much from the first feedback riddled chords of Dave Malloy's music, and from the curse-laden, simple speech of Jason Craig's dialogue. You may not be convinced of Banana Bag & Bodice's creativity at first, but by the first (of three) big fights, fluidly directed by Rod Hipskind, you'll beg for the chance to carry their kind of baggage.
Reviewed by Aaron Riccio
Beowulf and baggage—two alliteratively perfect things for the audacious company Banana Bag & Bodice to tackle in Beowulf: A Thousand Years of Baggage. There are shades of John Gardner’s revisionist Grendel, but Dave Malloy and Jason Craig’s songplay is a beast of a different sort, focusing neither on Beowulf’s point of view nor Grendel’s but rather on the subjective interpretations of three damnable academics. The result is a clash between the physical reality of Beowulf (Craig) and the gleeful spin of the academics, who justly double as the villains of the epic poem: Grendel (Christopher Kuckenbaker), Grendel’s Mother (Jessica Jelliffe), and the Dragon (Beth Wilmurt). Oh, and the whole thing’s set to Malloy’s nicely hodge-podged music, be it feedback (“Overture”), jungle-like techno (“Beowulf Arrives”), punk (“Body”), a dirge (“Grendel’s Death”), or even Broadway (“Ripped Him Up Good”).
The company’s set design helps to show the various levels of the play: The academics sit in a recessed portion of the stage up front, only their heads visible, while the action occurs on a raised white platform that is surrounded by the band and, upstage, by a wall of fans. But it’s Rod Hipskind’s fluid directing that nails the emotional levels, allowing Grendel’s mother to keen for her son (“I don’t fucking care how fucking men my fucking son murdered/they all fucking deserved what fucking ass pushers in fancy dress”) even as she wears arm floaters to signify that the scene’s taking place underwater. It’s a good balance for Craig’s language, which has a childish directness (e.g., “strong strength” and “sick weird weirdo sicko”) that allows the actors to seriously play with action figures one moment and comically go to slaughter the next.
Juggling all of these different elements requires a lot of energy—at one point, the chorus of warriors (Shaye Troha and Anna Ishida) runs up and down the aisles like cheerleaders, pumping us up. These efforts inevitably ebb, especially after the big numbers—like the armlock-filled dissonance of “The Battle” or the hilarious dioramic depiction of the “Underwater Battle.” Thankfully, it always builds back up, eventually reaching a surprising climax sung in “Olde English” and the elegant elegy “Passing.” Though some of the scenes are overcooked, the variety of styles and spices keep the show fresh, and though some of the interstitial gristle is unwieldy, it only serves to make the meaty action all the juicier.
Beowulf: A Thousand Years of Baggage (2hr, 1 intermission)
Abron Arts Center (466 Grand Street)
Tickets (212-352-3101): $20.00
Performances (through 4/18): Wed. - Sat. @ 8 | Sun. @ 5
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