Fraught is my relationship, I think like many people’s, with the Old English epic poem Beowulf. Why did Tolkien insist this oral narrative about a Scandinavian hero, only eventually and unwittingly transcribed into Old English, was canonical? It’s not English! neither about or in. The only paper I ever failed in the course of my undergraduate English Lit career was on Beowulf, so don’t expect any answers from me.
You might find enlightenment, nevertheless, at the American Repertory Theatre’s Oberon performance space this month where Beowulf: A Thousand Years of Baggage is making its third and longest run.
As imagined by the innovative Brooklyn-based Banana Bag & Bodice, Beowulf, the SongPlay, finds liberation from the pedantry and obliqueness that have bound it in mediocre lit crit since scholars decided it was important.
With mead in hand and a klezmer band on the stand, I have to admit I started to enjoy the story of the fearless Beowulf and the menacing Grendel. Maybe there was understanding too? Perhaps even unrestrained glee?
Creator Jason Craig, who also plays the feckless Beowulf complete with pot belly and glasses, cleverly positions his Weill-ian cabaret re-interpretation of the epic within the setting of an academic seminar. It is after-all within this context that most of us come to know Beowulf, and within which for many of us he is stripped of any vitality.
As the learned Cantabrigian audience placed their last drink orders and settled into their seats in the Oberon’s night-club come performance space, three scholars took the stage and called us to order. The hissing microphone was a nice touch.
They quickly contextualize and summarize; it’s not exactly spark notes, but surely as proficient as a high school survey course. In turn, their individual critical biases morph into the foes Beowulf must defeat.
Gawky and uncontainable, the post-modernist played by the OBIE Award-winning Rick Burkhardt manifests the raving — perhaps autistic, retarded? – Grendel who terrorizes King Hrothgar’s mead hall.
Grendel’s mother, the fearsomely feminist academic representing a matriarchal counterpoint is played by Banana Bag & Bodice founding member Jessica Jeliffe with astonishing hair and eye brows.
Formalist “Academic 3,” Lisa Claire, keeps things straight and running until she strips to sequined bodice and belts out a love ballad in old English as Beowulf’s fiercest foe, the dragon.
Nothing here is brilliant or life-alteringly deep, but there is wisdom surely in a centuries old heroic tale and context. And, when it’s at its best — when the pace is quick, and the jokes ribald – one can’t help but guffaw in unmeasured and irrepressible glee.
Maybe that’s all my failed college paper needed: a little more glee amidst the gore.
Jonathan Simcosky blogs at jonathansimcosky.com
*Feature Image: The Company. Photo by Evgenia Eliseeva