Am I a bad student of Western culture if I have never read Beowulf? In high school, Beowulf had the reputation of being the book assigned by a vindictive teacher who only assigned it to prove a point, either about the merits of high school or his own worthiness. In college, Beowulf became the book that was not assigned even in the core classes but was beloved by the Old English enthusiasts, and for most other males, an impressive book to show off to girls on your bookcase.
In a recent interview with the New York Times’s Jason Zinoman, Jason Craig, the playwright/star of Banana & Bodice’s madcap production of Beowulf: A Thousand Years of Baggage, expressed a similar sentiment.
“I just saw it on my bookshelf,” he said. “But I had never read it and wasn’t particularly interested in warriors or that kind of thing. Not my bag.”
I’d say that the second part of that statement separates Craig from most of the rest of his generation. With the rise of vampires (Twilight, Buffy), Zombies (Shaun of the Dead, World War Z), Ogres (Lord of the Rings, Shrek) and comic book heroes and mutants of various shapes and sizes, warriors and monsters are about as cool for the young of this era as they have been since the time of Beowulf.
Despite the return of monster popularity, theater, though it has a long tradition of bringing the world the coolest expression of monsters, has fallen behind its film and graphic novel competitors. Craig’s Beowulf, a go-for-broke experiment in zaniness that hits as often as it misses, nonetheless is perhaps the beginning of a return to monster love in theater; I hope to see more of it in theater to come.
Lest you think monster love in theater is a lark, what if I were to tell you it could end up saving theater as we know it for future generations? While Beowulf was by no means the best show I’ve seen in New York in the past year, its audience ranked among the most enthusiastic, with perhaps more tattoos, raucous laughter, and intoxication-on-arrival than any non-improv show I have ever attended. The only grey manes in the audience were either those of critics or parents, and yet the rather large Henry Street Settlement theater was packed to the brim. Unlike most recent shows in New York that have had youth appeal, this show did not trade in idealism, hope, or rage at elders. Rather, it traded in a kind of sarcasm, debauchery, and raucous laughter that only those under 30 are crazy enough to still engage in regularly.
Banana & Bodice, along with their co-sponsors the Bay Area's Shotgun Players, have a reputation for creating the biggest spectacles you’ll ever see in a garage theater setting. Beowulf, which is one of the biggest budgeted and name-making shows for either company, constantly dazzles with its tech design, making your jaw drop in ways productions with ten times (or even movies with a thousand times) the budget cannot.
The tech overwhelms so much about this show that every other aspect of Beowulf has to catch up with director Rod Hipskind’s manic staging. The actors have been deftly prepped with a sense of comic timing, even when something goes wrong. The most difficult problem with this cast of no-names is the inconsistent singing talent, which ends up making the most personal musical instrument the weakest and most distracting. However, when the occasional actor belts out something fantastic, or when Craig belts out something preposterous as Beowulf, the play is at its best.
Where the show runs into real problems is its script, which, despite my expectations, did not meet the Urinetown-level sophistication of mixing high-intellect concepts with a low-intellect pop-cultural knowledge and sense of humor. The scenes where farcical professors try in vain to analyze Beowulf are completely vapid, and some better writing in these scenes could have lifted the play to another level. As it stands, this Beowulf is more about taking large concepts and turning them into vehicles for theatrical trickery and ridiculous stage antics.
That’s by no means the worst thing that could have come out of this show—Rocky Horror had a script that was no less idiotic. But the cult appeal of fighting monsters, filling tanks with blood, reenacting epic fights with action figures, and loud rock music trumps all else. As it stands, Beowulf won’t win any awards like Urinetown did, but it could be hell of a lot more popular among audiences that theater desperately needs. Broadway has already started to break through to the young with its plays of hope; now it’s time for the fringe to appeal to the young’s more diabolical side. Beowulf may be one of the first plays to capture this audience, but hopefully it’s not the last, nor the best.
Beowulf: A Thousand Years of Baggage by Jason Craig; directed by Rod Hipskind; composer/musical direction by Dave Malloy; artistic direction by Craig and Jessica Jelliffe; dramaturgy by Mallory Catlett; set design and technical management by Banana Bag & Bodice; choreography by Anna Ishida & Shaye Troha; light design by Miranda K. Hardy; sound design by Brendan West; additional costumes by SF Buffoons (Eric & Riddle); props design by Sig Hafstrom; illustration by R Black.
Starring Jen Baker (Trombone, Chrous), Dan Bruno (Percussions, Chorus), Jason Craig (Beowulf), Ezra Gale (Bass, Chorus), Benjamin Geller (Viola, Chorus), Ishida (Warrior), Jeliffe (Academic), Christopher Kuckenbacker (Academic), Mario Maggio (Clarinet, Bass Clarinet, Harmonicas, Chrous), Dave Malloy (Hrothgar, Piano, Accordion, Programming), Andre Nigoghossian (Guitar, Saw, Chorus), Andy Strain (Trombone, Chorus), Troha (Warrior), Beth Wilmurt (Academic).
Beowulf: A Thousand Years of Baggage is a Banana & Bodice production in collaboration with the San Francisco Shotgun Players. It runs through April 18 at The Abrons Arts Center’s Harry de Jur Playhouse (466 Grand Street @ Pitt). Photos by Jessica Palopoli. For tickets or to check out clips from Beowulf visit www.beowulfnyc.com.