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Beowulf: A Thousand Years of Baggage

This "songplay" uses the great Medieval poem as the basis for an evening of fun and great music.

Jason Craig in Beowulf
(© Jensen Studios NYC)
Beowulf: A Thousand Years of Baggage, now being co-presented by the Berkeley-based Shotgun Players and New York's Banana Bag & Bodice at the Abrons Arts Center, is a rock opera that bills itself as a "songplay." And while it first seems to be the goal of this production to rediscover the passion and energy that drew early Medieval listeners to the original story, the troupes are less interested in recreating Beowulf, or looking for great meaning in it, than they are in simply creating art and having a lot of fun doing it. And they largely succeed on their own terms.

The show begins with three academic critics (Beth Wilmurt, Jessica Jelliffe, and Christopher Kuckenbaker) who are seen from the waist up offering dry, banal analysis of the legendary tale of monster-slaying. Lo and behold, through the course of the evening, the monsters themselves are portrayed by these selfsame critics. Something tells me that a statement is being made here -- and it's a legitimate one, since few could argue that the great epic poem has long been weighed down by blood-draining critique.

The music by Dave Malloy (who also offers a compelling turn as Hrothgar, the old Danish king who first calls on our hero to vanquish the monster terrorizing his land) is one of the work's highlights -- as the score takes a joyful romp through klezmer, indie rock, Kurt Weill, and New Orleans jazz, among other genres. The opening number is a Tom Waits-inspired piece that seizes the stage from the dry academics and tosses us into the center of the action. If the song isn't as delightfully dangerous as Waits can be, it nevertheless has heads in the audience bobbing.

And just wait for Beowulf's first entrance, a fun mix of punk, droll narrative, and Elvis-like swagger. Portrayed by Jason Craig (who is also the show's librettist and lyricist), this Beowulf is a lovable lug who doesn't cut the most heroic figure in his horn rims and quasi-animal hide. But he will rise to the occasion, especially if you call him stupid.

Meanwhile, the two performers with the best rock voices, Anna Ishida and Shaye Troha, back up the action as miscellaneous warriors and also provide some catchy choreography to go with it all. The entire company is listed as the designer of the set, which is dominated by a bank of 30 box fans topped by a gnarly section of chain-link fence. (The fans come in handy when dramatic wind effects are called for.) And five fish tanks are plopped onstage to assist with the telling of the underwater battle sequences. Clearly, the emphasis here is not on high-budget thrills -- and luckily, they're not needed.