Publication date: 
April 12, 2013
Katharine Vannier

Of Monsters and Men and Modernity

Ever been to an old-time-y mead hall? OBERON in Cambridge might not seem like a massive wooden building with shit-drunk Thanes sleeping off a hard night of drinking in ancient England, but this month, when Beowulf: A Thousand Years of Baggage comes to town, it’ll certainly feel like one.
This epic poem has been converted for a theater audience and has also been given a twist.
Banana Bag and Bodice, a Brooklyn-based theater company, took on the task of redoing the work in 2008 by adding live music and a few surly academics to the mix. The piece retells the poem while setting it in modernity, giving it an engaging makeover. “[The play] starts off with a panel of experts, or academics, trying to give a discourse on the poem and, throughout the [night], they become characters in the poem and Beowulf is … conjured up from the old world,” says lead actor and playwright, Jason Craig.
Not only is Beowulf culled from the literary world beyond, he’s “the only character who is in Beowulf-era clothing,” says Craig.
“The others are in modern-day clothing. He’s the standout figure that interrupts their world.” And he’s the standout character in more than one way because not only does he barge in on modern day academics, he’s also not the overly muscular, six-foot-eleven, massive dude that one may think of when picturing Beowulf. Rather, he looks like your average guy—complete with slight paunch and glasses—to add to the quirky character study. After all, this is no Angelina Jolie-starring, offensively inaccurate version of the epic.
Music is another critical aspect to this piece, although Craig does not consider it a musical: “We didn’t really want to call it a musical because I don’t really think it falls into that genre. And musicals have such a stigma.” But he also doesn’t consider this piece a play, saying, “We always try and have some kind of definition to our pieces that is not a traditional play, because we don’t necessarily do plays.”
So, what is it, then?  Well, it’s something strategically in the middle. A “SongPlay,” as Craig calls it,
“[It's] an embrace [of] theatricality with music.” No Wicked songs here, just straight-up music accompanying a powerful text.
Since music plays such a large role throughout this performance of Beowulf, a smaller venue with great acoustics is a must.  It also helps if said venue can become a mead hall, if only atmospherically. “We have a seven-piece band, so unfortunately, a lot of old, big mead hall-type spaces have relatively poor acoustics for amplified sound,” Craig says. “That has to be a giant consideration when we’re picking spaces. OBERON works really well because it’s got good acoustics, it’s got cabaret tables, and it’s got the environment of people sitting at tables.”  These elements, Craig says, help to bring the audience actively into the play’s environment.
This unique telling of Beowulf is definitely worth witnessing, showcasing the academic “monsters” of today with a hero from the past. And despite having already toured the world, according to Craig,
“The cast is still having fun with it after all of these years, and, hopefully, the audience does too."

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