Poets Theater Brings “Beowulf” Fully to Life (4.5 Stars)



Beowulf – Translated by Seamus Heaney; Adapted for the stage by David Gullette; Directed by Benjamin Evett; Ensemble Direction by Jason Slavick; Music Direction by Jay Mobley. Produced in partnership with Liars & Believers and the Multicultural Arts Center at the Multicultural Arts Center, 41 Second St., Cambridge, through December 20th.

W. H. Auden once said that “no poem, which when mastered, is not better heard than read is good poetry.” And when it happens to be Beowulf, the iconic poem that has been passed down orally for a thousand years (or more), and it is also put on its feet with some truly gifted actors, the results are even more satisfying. Such is the case with the production now being mounted by The Poets Theatre at the Multicultural Arts Center in Cambridge. Like last winter’s “Albatross” (which “Beowulf” director Benjamin Evett and Matthew Spangler adapted from “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner”), this production (from the Seamus Heaney translation) is proof positive that great long-form poetry can also make great theater. The tale may be a feast for the imagination, but as The Poets Theater tag line suggests, “beautiful language, told powerfully”, shouldn’t necessarily preclude some visuals as well.


“Beowulf” (for those who missed reading it in high school or college) tells the story of the title character, who comes to the rescue of his father’s friend, King Hrothgar of Denmark. Hrothgar’s great mead hall, Heorot, where his warriors gather to drink and swap tales, has long been under attack by the monster Grendel, who emerges from his swamp lair to devour Hrothgar’s men. Beowulf, who is as boastful as Ali, awes the crowd when tells Hrothgar that he will, “renounce sword and the shelter of the broad shield, the heavy war-board: hand-to-hand is how it will be, a life-and-death fight with the fiend.”


And he does just that – single-handedly – vanquishing Grendel and tearing off the monster’s arm in the process as Grendel slithers back to his lair and dies. Beowulf hangs the arm high in the mead-hall as a trophy of victory. But after all the rejoicing, we find that the horror is far from over. Grendel’s equally gruesome mother comes seeking revenge, brutally murdering Aeschere, one of Hrothgar’s most trusted advisers, in the night. So Beowulf and his men follow her back to the lake where she lives and he also slays her, taking with him the severed head of Grendel, which he (of course) hangs in the mead hall as an even more impressive remembrance of his deeds. Beowulf then returns to his homeland and rules benevolently for 50 years, and in a story the AARP would surely love, dies while slaying a dragon at the age of 70-plus.


If that sounds like a lot of storytelling to get through in 90 minutes, it is. But although some of the sequences seem a little long, TPT pulls it off beautifully, enlisting the help of local theater troupe Liars & Believers, which add a dimension of movement to the performance that artfully enhances the narrative. Johnny Lee Davenport is commanding as Beowulf, literally appearing larger than life, and when he delivers the ancient poem in his booming baritone, you believe that he is the legendary warrior king. David Gullette is also convincing as the wise old Hrothgar, and Amanda Gann adds an extraordinary depth to her host of characters with her impassioned delivery.  


With a play of this scope, it’s obviously not possible to fully stage most of the action, but Jesse Garlick, Rachel Wiese, and Becca Lehrhoff of Liars & Believers fill that space by playing numerous roles, including Beowulf’s band of men as well as the monsters that he slays, while also creating scenes such as the ocean crossings and a funeral pyre. L & B’s Jay Mobley and Ethan Rubin (on guitar and violin, respectively) also provide a haunting backing score for the production.


Costuming for the production combines faux fur, tights and Doc Martens, but evokes the era convincingly. The setting for the production is also a huge plus, as the Multicultural Arts Center is transformed into a grand mead hall. There is traditional Viking-era folk dancing going on as you enter the performance space, and audience members are encouraged to join in before the performance. There is also “Viking Combat” provided midway through the show by The Viking Irish, a local group of history enthusiasts who stage three fights with swords and a pole ax (which literally penetrated a wooden shield on the night I was in attendance), so there’s plenty of fun to be had by all. For more info, go to: http://www.poetstheatre.org/