Modern Adaptation of Classic Work Depicts Story and Critical Response

Equal Parts Opera and Musical, 'Beowulf: A Thousand Years of Baggage' is Quirky Mixed Bag

Photo: Are you the one they call beowulf? With styled hair and a mundane pair of glasses, Jason Craig provides a unique  interpretation of the hero in 'Beowulf: A Thousand Years of Baggage.'
Shotgun Players/Courtesy
Are you the one they call beowulf? With styled hair and a mundane pair of glasses, Jason Craig provides a unique interpretation of the hero in 'Beowulf: A Thousand Years of Baggage.'

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Titling any work of performance art as "Beowulf" automatically burdens that production with a lot to live up to-the epic poem is perhaps one of the most well-known, or at least widely recognized, as epic poems go. And many times, these productions-including a certain 2007 film-fall short of fully and properly depicting the epic saga of the warrior Beowulf.

Berkeley's Shotgun Players, in collaboration with Banana Bag and Bodice, present their take on the story in their latest production "Beowulf: A Thousand Years of Baggage." The company has dubbed their creation a SongPlay, which supposedly falls somewhere in between Musical Theater and Opera, but is clearly not either. As for living up to the name of Beowulf, it is never really clear if that is one of the actual goals of the show.

The show opens with harsh lights beaming down on a long table and three panel-style critics, who claim that their topic for the evening is, you guessed it, Beowulf. The critics give the audience a little background information on the origins and context of the Epic (for those of you who didn't know, Beowulf was a Swede) and then transition into the telling of the actual story itself. This is done through musical numbers with a sometimes-jazzy feel and a live band. The numbers are entertaining, the band is great, but the overall vocals are a bit on the weak side. The lyrics are fun, albeit a little repetitive, and there are times when the voices sound, well, just a little off.

As the story calls for it, two of the critics slip onto the platform-style stage and take on the roles in the story. The critic who remains is Cameron Galloway's scholarly and decidedly grandma-esque persona whose attempts to point out literary-type facts provide an amusing contrast to the events unfolding on stage. She also offers possibly the best moment of the show: Near the conclusion, she takes the stage, invokes the original Beowulf Poem and begins to sing in Old English.

Then there is the hero himself. With much fanfare, playwright Jason Craig as Beowulf bursts onto the scene with rock-star entrance. Adorned with comically urbane rectangular glasses and spiked hair, Beowulf dances across the stage before sitting down on an Ikea stool to be verbally dissected by the critics. The constant interruptions by the critics eventually come to symbolize some sort of academic murder of the fierce heart of "Beowulf"-a characteristic that the show itself strangely also makes fun of and even criticizes. This tendency complicates and slightly muddles the effect of the points the show tries to make.

Opposite of Beowulf is Christopher Kuckenbacker's Grendel, a sort of misguided youngster-a murderous child whose accent oscillates between that of a punk kid and of Cletus the slack-jawed yokel. Nonetheless, his short performance is intriguing as he taunts and insults the hero who will inevitably slay him. Memorable as well is Jessica Jefille as Grendel's mother, who ferociously raises one of the central questions: What is the real difference between good and evil?

Overall, the show is a fun ride-who can resist singing Vikings? But while "Beowulf" poses worthy questions and indeed has its entertaining moments, in the end just falls a little short of making a resounding impression, or real conclusion. In short, making singing Vikings into opera stars is no easy task. "Beowulf: A Thousand Years of Baggage" at once tries to parody and heroically embody Beowulf, and thereby ends up doing a decent, but not outstanding, job at both.

Practice your Old English singing with Arielle at [email protected]

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