Variety Review: Beowulf: A Thousand Years of Baggage

Publication date: 
June 16, 2008
Dennis Harvey

Three academes (Cameron Galloway, Jessica Jelliffe, Christopher Kuckenbaker) sit at a table with requisite mikes, notepads and water bottles, delivering a mix of classroom queries and slightly nonsensical insights (describing the Dark Ages as "Different times ... yet similar ... yet altogether different") as they edge into "our discussion" of the literary work at hand.

Eventually Kuckenbaker casually ducks beneath the table, emerging on the small stage platform behind -- flanked on either side by composer Dave Malloy's seven-piece band -- as Grendel, the "man-beast" who's terrorized Danish humanity for 14 years.

Malloy leaves his piano momentarily to sing about the plight of King Hrothgar, ruling over an ever-dwindling population. Hauled around in a sort of wheelchair-barrow as he plays accordion, this hapless monarch shrugs "At least we still have booze/I think I'll go get lit."

A hilarious fanfare sequence choreographed by Anna Ishida and Shaye Troha (and mostly for them, as the two women portray all Hrothgar's male subjects) announces the arrival of savior Beowulf, a none-too-imposing warrior figure as depicted by the show's writer, a bespectacled, somewhat paunchy Jason Craig.

Nonetheless, he delivers, slaying the beast in an impromptu wrestling-ring battle.

After intermission and Beowulf's bragfest "I Ripped Him Up Good," our hero realizes his job is just half-done. Now he must face the wrath of Grendel's disturbingly over-affectionate mother (Jelliffe).

The show "ends" after this second confrontation, only to be prodded onward by strenuous objection from Beowulf himself, whose lesser-remembered third epic chapter (a long successful reign back home in Sweden until death-by-dragon) the academics want to skip. His insistence leads to the very funny Galloway finally joining her colleagues in morphing into a creature whose big number is wailed out in the original "Olde English."

Directed by Rod Hipskind, bicoastal troupe Banana Bag & Bodice's production (presented here under the principal auspices of Berkeley's Shotgun Players) has moments when energy and staging invention slacken.

But for the most part it's delightfully, unpredictably quirky on all levels. Those include Malloy's score, which often sounds like indie-rock Kurt Weill but finds room for hints of klezmer, ramalama punk and near-normal showtune; adventuresome arrangements encompassing everything from dual trombones to whistling and musical saw; design elements that recall the Wooster Group's maxi-minimalism; plus severed-limb gore, audience wetting, toy action figures and a lot of periodic seminar-speak.

Nimbly handling various layers of deadpan irony and occasional flat-out jokiness, the cast's vocals are uniformly strong.

While a somewhat more rarefied, avant-garde beast than the likes of "Hedwig" and "Passing Strange," this rock musical is likewise more rock than traditional musical and as such has the makings of a cult (if not wildly commercial) fave.

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