A.R.T.’s ‘Beowulf’ is Goofy, Rockin’ Fun (Four Stars)

Review by Mike Hoban

“Beowulf – A Thousand Years of Baggage”. Text and lyrics by Jason Craig; Music by David Molloy;Co-Directed by Rod Hipskind, Mallory Catlett. At Oberon, 2 Arrow St., Cambridge. Nightly performances through May 5th. See www.cluboberon.com.

Having read Beowulf as a kid, what I remembered most about it were monsters, a kickass brave warrior and some pretty juicy violence – including a couple of pretty neat (to a twelve year-old boy) beheadings. I didn’t really pay much attention to its importance (or lack thereof) to Western literature or its psychological meanings or much of anything else, because let’s face it, most twelve year old boys just aren’t into that stuff. So when I went to see “Beowulf – A Thousand Years of Baggage” at Oberon, I wasn’t exactly sure what do expect, but what I got was pretty much what I had remembered – along with some laughs provided by imaginatively campy staging and a pretty rockin’ and demented score.

Beowulf is written and staged in almost the way that twelve year old boys or stoners would stage it – if they were being guided by Frank Zappa.

It opens with three literary professor types (Jessica Jelliffe, Rick Burkhard, Lisa Clair) discussing the epic poem in vague, relatively unenthusiastic tones, in the way that someone who had only read the Cliff Notes would write a book report – trying to find something to say about something were deeply uninterested in but knew they had to get over with.

For instance, one of the academics describes the epic work’s structure as, “well, a long story poem, possibly in long-story-poem form.” Which is as deep as any of the analysis goes, and it works to good comic effect.

The “long story poem” is then turned into a “song play” that opens with King Hrothgar (Brian McCorkle, who also plays piano and accordion) of Denmark losing sleep over the fact that his beloved man-cave mead hall is being terrorized by a diabolical troll named Grendel. The monster visits regularly over a 14-year period, killing his men and dragging their remains back to his mother’s lair (yes, it’s a monster that lives with his mom) to be eaten by the dad-less family. Mom warns Grendel in song that he should be careful when “poking a stick in that nest” when he’s “murdering from midnight to morning.” And she’s right. Beowulf (Jason Craig) shows up to the rocking tongue-in-cheek tune of “Hey! It’s That Guy!” as a kind of nerdy biker type with the swagger of an Elvis impersonator, who promises to vanquish the “man-beast beast-man” for the king. Which he does. After a brutal (and very funny) thumb-wrestling match in which Beowulf tears off Grendel’s arm, the ogre returns to Mom’s house at the bottom of the lake, where he dies weeping in his her arms.

There is much rejoicing at the mead hall and Beowulf is hailed as the conquering hero that he is, at least until a very pissed Mom shows up at the hall and kicks some butt Grendel-style. She kills one of Beowulf’s men and drags him back to her watery lair. He of course pursues her, and following an F-bomb laden argument, he slays her too. Which of course leads to more drinking and rejoicing with Hrothgar and the boys. All of this is told in warped song and verse, with a little rock n roll, klezmer, and cabaret style music driving the action. There is a seven-piece band with piano, trombone, clarinet, accordion musical saw, drums, guitar and stand up bass as well as talented back up singers/dancers Anna Ishida, Shaye Troha. The costumes (with the exception of the female singers) looked like they were assembled on a drunken ten-minute supermarket sweep through the Garment District (which fits the show’s campy style) and the props are from (again) a boys room (plastic swords, fish tanks, plastic action figures). In fact, the production company’s website states, “Our design is inspired by the objects and materials thrown into the theatrical dumpsters of midtown Manhattan.” So there’s a method to the madness.

The tight band crosses many musical genres and the lyrics are both funny and coherent. The cast (particularly the women) are solid singers, and Jelliffe as Grendel’s Mom and Academic stands out. Craig (who wrote the show) really owns the dim-witted ultra macho Beowulf and has a commanding presence as a singer and performer. But this show is not for everyone. There are lots of f-bombs, and the tongue in cheek style may not be everyone’s cup of tea, but I howled consistently (the twelve year old boy in me lives!)

For more, see www.cluboberon.com.