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Beowulf

By New York City
Richard Barth and Bill Gross in Beowulf
(Photo © Carol Rosegg)
Richard Barth and Bill Gross in Beowulf
(Photo © Carol Rosegg)
The Anglo-Saxon verse epic Beowulf is still very much in the public consciousness more than 1,000 years after its publication. Rebuking the common wisdom that poetry doesn't sell, Seamus Heaney's recent translation climbed the bestseller lists. Our submersion into Celtic cutlure will be complete when director Robert Zemeckis releases his CGI animation film of the epic, starring Angelina Jolie, in 2007. Meanwhile, a new musical version of Beowulf, written by Lenny Pickett and Lindsey Turner, pushes the age-old tale further into the popular consciousness. But if the creators want their show to get more play, they need to develop it further.

The story of Beowulf follows a band of warriors who are terrorized by mythic creatures. One day, the warriors run into Beowulf in the woods, and he vows to protect them. After vanquishing the previously invincible monster Grendel, he confronts the creature's grieving mother, copes with deaths within the clan, and takes a turn at statesmanship when an accident of fate makes him king.

Distilling this sprawling epic into about an hour and a half, the musical races from one heroic episode to another at such a breathless pace that even academics who have memorized the work may find it difficult to keep up. Moreover, each adventure happens so quickly that its hard for the audience to get involved in any of them. Another problem is that most of the lyrics have the characters doing little more than revealing the plot -- the original poetry be damned. Although the show is being marketed as a rock opera, that's mercifully not what it is. Can you imagine King Hrothgar belting out a power ballad? Electric guitars would have been inane in a story about sixth-century Germanic tribesmen; instead, composer/lyricist Pickett opts for authenticity, using Celtic instruments such as the harp and organ. His compositions are lush, ritualistic, and exotic.

Director Charlotte Moore is tremendously inventive in advancing the plot, and Bob Flanagan's puppet designs are serious, reverent, and creative. There are green- and blue-eyed monsters, sea voyages depicted in shadow, glow-in-the-dark swamp creatures, and fearsome heads of dragons. Akira Yoshimura's set is more suggestive than realistic; he can make a pile of chairs resemble a forest that has been ravaged by griffins. Brian Nason's lighting is often inspired, especially in his use of black lights. Only Randall Klein's costumes don't always work; in a show that concerns itself so much with rugged masculinity, having some of the men wear mesh shirts seems a misstep.

Richard Barth gives a strong performance as the title character, even though he's got a leaner and more boyish frame than his more muscular fellow actors. This somewhat counterintuitive casting choice ultimately pays off as we realize that Beowulf's mythic strength comes more from his heart and willpower than his body. The production is ensemble work at its most collaborative, with the six cast members wearing numerous hats as actors, singers, and puppeteers. They deserve meatier material to match their talents.


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