A Shotgun Players production at the Ashby Stage, Berkeley, through June 22
Jason Craig, who also wrote the show, tackles the title role in Beowulf: A Thousand Years of Baggage, a Shotgun Players collaboration with Banana Bag & Bodice. Photos by Jessica Palopoli.
Shotgun collaborates, monstrous musical roars to raging life
«««« Hungry like the Beowulf!
Forget last year’s craptastic half-live/half-animated Beowulf movie that put a tail on Angelina Jolie. Heck, you may even want to forget about reading the book. If you want to experience Beowulf – really experience the 1,000-year-old epic poem, head to Berkeley’s Ashby Stage, where you’ll dive into one of the most interesting and exciting shows currently on a Bay Area stage.
Beowulf: A Thousand Years of Baggage is original, surprising and strangely moving. The world-premiere work marks a first collaboration between the Shotgun Players and the Banana Bag & Bodice, a group familiar to San Francisco Fringe Festival audiences. Also in the creation mix are Magic Theatre/Z Space and the New Works Initiative, and the show will be further developed when it moves to the Henry Street Playhouse in Manhattan a little less than a year from now.
So how do you approach Beowulf, a monumental epic, with a cast of seven? You make it a rousing musical, of course. The original aim of composer Dave Malloy was to create an opera, but what he and writer Jason Craig ended up with is something more interesting: a hurdy-gurdy rock musical that lives just on the other side of a Brecht-Weill beer hall. Malloy’s engaging score is, like the show itself, both funny and serious. And unlike so many new musicals, it features music you actively want to listen to. Just check out the composition of Malloy’s orchestra: Malloy himself is on piano and accordion (he also plays King Hrothgar); Jen Baker is on trombone; Chris Broderick is on bass clarinet and clarinet; Dan Bruno goes to town on percussion; Andy Strain slides the trombone; and Andre Nigoghossian plays guitar and – get this – the saw.
You get roiling anthems like the opening “Heorot” and angry heart-rippers such as “Bring It” sung by a rampaging Grendel’s Mother (who, strangely, has never been named after all these years). There are sweet harmonies (provided mainly by dancing soldiers Anna Ishida and Shaye Troha) that recall 1940s swing, and then you get a duet called “What Kind of a Face” sung between the warrior Beowulf (Craig) and King Hrothgar that sounds a little like Johnny Cash and June Carter flirting over the microphone.
Directed with verve by Rod Hipskind, Beowulf isn’t even two hours, but it never feels rushed. There are a few songs here and there that could be tightened, but the brisk pace and the constantly changing palate (played out on a set designed by Banana Bag & Bodice and lit by Miranda Hardy) make those two hours as full as they could be.
Craig has devised a smart narrative device to help put his story in both a historical and a modern context that also happens to skewer the academic world that Beowulf seems to live in these days. The show begins with three academics (Cameron Galloway, Jessica Jelliffe and Christopher Kuckenbaker) sitting behind microphones and preparing to lead us through a seminar on the epic story poem. Before too long, the academics have broken the bonds of their brains and jumped into the action of the play. Kuckenbaker becomes Grendel, the murderous monster man and Jelliffe becomes Grendel’s mom, who lives with her outcast son at the bottom of a lake. The mother-son relationship is especially strong, and once Beowulf severs Grendel’s arm, and the beast dies in his mother’s arms, there’s more than a pang of sadness in the number “Grendel’s Death.”
Galloway, who is just priceless in her timid academic suit and neckwear (the smart, funny, just-right costumes are by Kaibrina Buck), doesn’t break out until toward the end, during the last chapter of Beowulf’s life (when he dies battling a dragon) when she sings part of the tale in the original Olde English.
Craig makes for an ambivalent hero. When asked by Grendel’s mother why he murdered her son, the warrior can’t come up with a great answer. “It started with his action against. So, revenge I guess.” Beowulf, it seems, is not such a thoughtful guy. He can’t even come up with a definition of “good” when asked. Instead of thought, he lives in a world ruled by the all-too-common school of thought: “It is better to retaliate than to mourn.”
Part of what makes Beowulf so exciting is that it feels contemporary without straining itself to be hip. The aim seems to be the telling of a story and not the marketing of a performance art rock musical and all the wondrous personalities within it. There’s a natural ferocity, humor and thoughtfulness in this show, and that’s truly what makes this Beowulf howl.
Beowulf: A Thousand Years of Baggage continues through June 22 at the Ashby Stage, 1901 Ashby Ave., Berkeley. Tickets are $17-$25. Call 510-841-6500 or visit www.shotgunplayers.org for information. Find out more about Banana Bag & Bodice at www.bananabagandbodice.org.