The A.R.T’s most recent hip New York import is Beowulf: A Thousand Years of Baggage, now running at Oberon. The show opens with three speakers talking in a kind of broken academic cant in something that’s part book talk and part lecture. Their takes on the book are humorously weighed down by their personalities. This is reader response criticism at its highest.
One has a kind of manly fascination with Beowulf, another has an erotic fascination with the titular character, and the third is a classic feminist. It’s this third reading that the show predictably relies the most on. That take is probably fine if you never had to read Beowulf for school or if you’re a feminist who prefers the standard lines of discourse, but I find it kind of boring, reductive, and dismissive–kind of like going around saying Sir Gawain is gay, and why, and leaving it at that.
I was hoping the show might put a little more spin on things and take us beyond the conflict between the matriarchal and the patriarchal, especially since the plot isn’t all that interesting by itself if you know it. Perhaps what’s most interesting about Beowulf is its canonization–but this is taken for granted here. I’ll be fair and say that they do take on Beowulf in old age, but with jokes about how they almost skipped over it after things are wrapped up with Grendel’s mom. I think pulling from the latter part of the book, drawing Beowulf as a kind of aging rock star would have been more interesting than a typical assault on his violent machismo.
While I didn’t keel over laughing at Jason Craig (as Beowulf) gesture at his codpiece, there were some good lines of anachronistic dialog between Beowulf and Grendel (Rick Burkhardt). And Jessica Jelliffe (as Grendel’s Mom) had a cool cabaret vibe going. Much of the show had the qualities of a radio play and I might’ve had more of a soft spot for it had it been on the radio.
Props to the band, which includes a great clarinet player (Mario Maggio), a guitarist who was amazing with a slide and array of effect pedals (Sam Kulik), and a couple trombones that kick out some brass band bass. Multi-instrumentalist Brian McCorkle, who sang a few verses as King Hrothgar, had the most natural stage presence of the troupe. But behind the musicians and ridiculousness, there wasn’t enough of an interesting spin on the text for me.