Beowulf: A Thousand Years of Baggage
See Trinity Rep's take on the Old English epic, and feel the symbolic whack of Grendel’s severed arm.
Professors are like psychologists. They dissect literature and art, probing and poking and unraveling fantastical stories about what makes a character tick, what subliminal messages the creator made and what it all means.
Their essays are full of jargon and undertones of ecstasy, as if they can hardly believe what their fastidious minds have come up with: “The depiction of Beowulf ripping off Grendel’s arm has undertones of repressed sexual inclinations. Beowulf swings wildly, gripping Grendel’s arm as they grapple, sweat pooling on his fevered brow, muscles taut, and he groans in a primordial ecstasy as he pulls the arm out of its socket, Grendel screaming in orgasmic pain.” Yeah, they went there. Or more accurately, your Motifs in English Epics professor did.
Take that image of your professor giddy with his "discovery," mix it with rock and roll and apply it to an Old English epic, and you’ll get Jason Craig and Dave Malloy's Beowulf: A Thousand Years of Baggage, onstage at Trinity Repertory Company now through October 9.
It will whack you over the head like Grendel’s severed arm.
Trinity Rep’s rendition of Craig and Malloy's musical is flawless. The actors are not only good at acting, they can freaking belt it beautifully. The costumes, including a menagerie of warriors wearing corsets and football shoulder pads with jagged Bowie-esque hair, are witty and fun. The music is a mashup of head-banger rock/steampunk/prog rock/classic rock with twangs of folk for ambience — not necessarily catchy Hamilton-style music that will get stuck in your head, but it’ll do.
That said, the play is weird. Peppered with profanities, it begins with three professors in droll attire presenting a PowerPoint on Beowulf, a horrible flashback to classrooms that smelled of too much Windex and B.O.
Between pseudo-intellectual musings by the professors, we are given gems of critiques of the epic by other “academics.” The one that best sums up the humor of the play, and its weirdness is “Grendel; sounds like it’s the space between your balls and your ass.”
Folks, let’s get ready to rumble.
The professors then join us in watching the epic unfold. King Hrothgar, played by Joe Wilson Jr., enters in tight black pants and a blazing crystal-covered jacket with a mohawk sprouting from his head. His mead hall (basically a place to party, drink and get sweaty) is being ravaged by a monster with a human head, Grendel. Hrothgar needs a hero, Hrothgar needs…Beowulf.
In the case of A Thousand Years of Baggage, Grendel is a shrimpy little man with a rather dumpy academic wardrobe and tortoiseshell glasses. But man, Stephen Berenson (the actor) can belt it, and his get-up is transformed by a Cats-style costume made of trinkets, metal and garbage during his fight with Beowulf.
Long story short (which is pretty much the case with both the epic itself and the play), Beowulf slays Grendel and exacts revenge upon his mother for killing one of his soldiers. Then, fast-forwarding to when he is an old man, Beowulf dies after killing a dragon.
Imbedded in this action-packed plot line is Beowulf, portrayed as a rather LAX bro by Charlie Thurston. (When a female stagehand comes to takes away his armor, with his icy blue eyes twinkling and mouth tugged at the corners in a smirk he says, “Hey I’m Beowulf, nice to meet you.”) Thurston shines as the rugged, cover-of-a-paperback-novel Beowulf, showing strength and bravado mixed with a kind of crude stupidity, his sentences omitting words and sense.
That said, the play seems more about Grendel, Mother of Grendel and the three moth-ball professors than the title character. Let’s just say Anne Scurria, who plays Mother of Grendel, slays it. Her fierceness and fury at the killing of her son seemed to make her physically balloon in fury, and I actually kind of felt bad for her son, lil’ Grendelkins.
Another part of the play that showcases the multifaceted talent Trinity has on tap is the scene where Beowulf fights Mother of Grendel. It’s set in a “f*cking lake” clogged with seaweed and mud. The whole scene is "fought" on a projector, with Scurria (Mother or Grendel) and Thurston (Beowulf) masterfully — I'm not being sarcastic — slipping slides on and off and creating a shadow puppet-esque creation. It’s a far cry from the crass, inflammatory, vulgar and delectably devilish play, and just as enjoyable.
In the end, the professors return to their rumpled, musty states a little wiser, while Beowulf dies in surprisingly poetic form, singing about walking over smooth clovers, the most eloquent words he’s said the whole play.
Trinity Repertory Company's Beowulf: A Thousand Years of Baggage is onstage now through October 9. Tickets are $25–$61. For more information, call 401-351-4242 or visit trinityrep.com.