‘Beowulf’ entertains audience with eccentricity, innovation


“Beowulf — A Thousand Years of Baggage,” which opened at the American Repertory Theater’s Oberon space on April 16 and will run through May 5, is not your typical piece of theater. For one thing, it’s a “SongPlay” melded with club-style music, amusing battles and academic dialogue. The play begins as though at a conference, with three academics introducing the epic poem “Beowulf.” It soon dissolves into a retelling of the tale with each academic transforming into one of Beowulf’s enemies.

The production intends to be fun and comical rather than thought provoking, and it succeeds. The play consistently manages to be untraditional and unexpected. Two middle-aged, comically unimpressive-looking actors play the hero Beowulf and his enemy, Grendel. Rick Burkhardt’s performance of Grendel is fascinating. Dressed as an academic, he portrays Grendel as confused and obsessed with his mother. Still, something about the portrayal is unsettling; Grendel seems unable to process the havoc he causes, though he still enjoys the chaos.

Jessica Jelliffe’s performance as Grendel’s mother is even more impressive. She challenges the idea that Beowulf is the hero and forces the audience to recognize her status as a mother who is seeking revenge for her son. She delivers a haunting song after her son is injured and balances ferocity with maternal love.

The play highlights the cycle of revenge, in which Grendel kills, Beowulf kills Grendel and Grendel’s mother then seeks to kill Beowulf in return. Throughout the play, various characters say, “It is better to retaliate than to mourn,” pointing out the irony of the characters’ actions as they continue the cycle of violence rather than stopping to mourn the dead.

Unfortunately, the play only brushes upon “Beowulf’s” most compelling themes. Its biggest fault is that the through line of the story is not very interesting. In addition, the play lacks substance, instead favoring flashy and humorous moments. There are moments, particularly towards the end once Jelliffe has left the stage, where the pace drags and it feels like the play should have already ended.

Rather than enact a great plot, “Beowulf” focuses on entertainment and spectacle. For example, the band is present onstage and participates in the mood of the play. Brian McCorkle, who plays King Hrothgar, even plays in the band, initially accompanying himself on accordion and portraying a hilariously disheveled monarch. Because the band takes up the small stage, there is no room for a set beyond a red curtain at the back of the stage. The lack of room onstage also means that much of the action takes place in various parts of the audience’s seating area and even on a catwalk at the back of the room. There is also an overuse of moving lights, which create patterns of light that roam around the audience. The spectacle merely draws focus away from the action of the play.

In contrast, the costumes are brilliant. They tend to be simple or abstract. For example, the king appears in a worn red bathrobe and a white beater tank. His crown is made of fabric and is worn lopsidedly on his head. Beowulf’s shirt is sleeveless, and his costume is made of a rough grey material that adds to his deliberately unimpressive appearance.

One of the best costumes is that of Lisa Clair, who initially plays Academic 3, a scholar obsessed with Beowulf. She is dressed in a tight black pencil skirt and black blazer. In the end, she shifts to become Beowulf’s final enemy, a dragon. She takes her hair down and removes the blazer to reveal a stunning top, before proceeding to first seduce and then symbolically battle Beowulf. Her transformation from a stuffy academic to a sexy dragon is impressive because of its simplicity and the clever decision to make the transformation onstage, visible to the audience.

Though the production of “Beowulf” lacks depth, it manages to amuse and entertain. It is a worthwhile production for someone looking for something unexpected, if not clever.