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Beowulf: A Thousand Years of Baggage

For every student of English literature who has suffered through flat renderings of the oldest surviving long poem and one of the most important works of Old English literature, The Catamounts have the cure: "An epic gypsy punk SongPlay."

The academics
The academics
Photo: Michael Ensminger
Forget the recounting of complex lineages, and debts owed and repaid; this retelling—book and lyrics by Jason Craig, music by Dave Malloy, directed by Meridith C. Grundei—cuts to the chase.

What begins as a satire of a dry, academic panel discussion of Beowulf, quickly turns into a rollicking, no holds barred musical account of, what archeologists believe is, legends based on real people.

Hrothgar (Gary Grundei) and his warriors love to celebrate their victories and comaraderie in a great hall, drinking mead, just like the audience is encouraged to do while sitting at long tables. But their reveries cease when Grendel (Ben Hilzer), a troll-like monster, attacks the hall and devours many of Hrothgar's warriors while they sleep, forcing the survivors to abandon the premises.

Grundei's opening number explains the backstory, and then things cut loose with an up-tempo polka (think "Hava Nagila"), where he plays the accordian from a wheelchair, accompanied by two comely, but ferocious Warriors (Amanda Berg Wilson and Allison Caw, with great costumes—hubba, hubba—by Annabel Reader), who serve as his backup singers, and set a tone that turns what can be a tedious tale into a comedic and tuneful romp.

Joe Von Bokern as Beowulf, with his warriors, Allison Caw (left) and Amanda Berg Wilson (front)
Joe Von Bokern as Beowulf,
with his warriors,
Allison Caw (left) and
Amanda Berg Wilson (front)
Photo: Michael Ensminger
Beowulf (Joe Van Bokern), a young warrior from another kingdom, hears of Hrothgar's plight and receives permission from his king to leave the homeland and do battle with Grendel. Berg Wilson and Caw's duet (reminiscent of "Beat Me Daddy Eight to the Bar") presage Beowulf's arrival at Hrothgar's troops. Then it is Van Bokern, accompanied by the two warriors, who introduces himself. The gist of this piece is a send up of Lancelot's "C'est Moi!," from Camelot.

Beowulf and the warriors return to the hall to feign sleep and lure Grendel. The brave Beowulf, believing himself to be Grendel's equal, refuses to use a weapon, and goes mano-a-mano with the monster. A fierce battle ensues, and Beowulf's seconds attempt to join the fray and pierce Grendel with their swords, to no avail. Beowulf tears Grendel's arm off (fun effects here), and the monster retreats to his abode in the marshes, to die in his mother's (Joan Bruemmer-Holden) arms. Beowulf goes so far as to call Grendel and Grendel's Mother's lifestyle "unnatural," by which we believe he refers to cannibalism and incest. Remember that the poem dates to the time when Christianity was in the process of purging paganism from Britain, Ireland, Scandinavia, and elsewhere, as it expanded through Europe and parts of Asia and Africa.

After some commentary from the academic panel (whose views clearly represent the baggage in the title), it's Grendel's Mother's turn to do battle with Beowulf, as an act of revenge. Bruemmer-Holden, as the monster's mother, is Brunhilde on steroids, selling us a very dark and bloody delicious song, as she takes down one of Hrothgar's most loyal fighters, on her way to the mano-a-mama with Beowulf.

After Berg Wilson's Warrior paints a bluesy lament to her fallen comrade, Beowulf and Grendel's Mother do battle, with each combatant representing the fight in the lake with dolls and an aquarium. SNL's "Mr. Bill" could not have given a better performance. When the water clears, Beowulf is again victorious, and celebrates by parading the horns he has scalped from Grendel's Mother. The tune has a pleasant, if mocking tone, with strains of a Klezmer ditty. It's worth noting, as we shall get to later, that after Beowulf slays Grendel's Mother, he severs Grendel's head, causing his sword to dissolve from the poison that runs in Grendel's blood.

Given the long gap in the story between this battle and Beowulf's final tilt decades later with the Dragon, we are asked to consider the academic panel's commentary on male violence passed down through the generations. Here, the playwright (or is it the panel?) misses the mark slightly, by overlooking the hormonal basis for gender roles and the requisites of survival in the jungle, outdated as such behavior may be today. The bottom line: this sexist commentary serves as yet another example of "political correctness" ignoring historical context.

Apparently, Beowulf was offended as well, as he tells the panel that they don't know anything about blood and dragons, leading to another emotive song from Van Bakern, as he tears up what hopefully was not the only surviving original copy of Beowulf. This is more than one of the scholars can take, and she turns into the Dragon (Kate Moore), causing Beowulf to recoil momentarily. If you thought the "Rumble in the Jungle" and the "Thrilla in Manila" were dramatic, then you'll love the set-to between Beowulf and the Dragon, precipitated by a stolen golden cup.

Again, Beowulf tells his men that he will go it alone to fight the Dragon, but he is outmatched by the creature. One of his men comes to his aid, and together they slay her, but Beowulf is mortally wounded. The two warriors lament his state, before Beowulf, like an opera diva, delivers a last aria before he exits the stage, much as Shake-speare would have it:

All the world’s a stage,
And all the men and women merely players;
They have their exits and their entrances
As You Like It, Act II, Scene VII, 1037-39.

Which brings us to the connection between Beowulf and Shake-speare. As noted above, when Beowulf severs Grendel's head as a gift for Hrothgar, Grendel's poison blood dissolves Beowulf's sword. When Edward de Vere ("Shake-speare," as the pen name first appeared, on the 2nd quarto of Richard III, in 1598, and on the first edition of the Sonnets, in 1609) wrote Hamlet, he followed the story of another Scandinavian epic, Amleth, up until the introduction of poison in the last scene, after which he followed the Beowulf story. The only surviving copy of Beowulf was in the library of Cecil House (William Cecil, Lord Burghley, chief of state for Queen Elizabeth for nearly her entire reign), de Vere's guardian. The book was checked out to 16th-century scholar Laurence Nowell at the time (1563) he was tutoring de Vere, the 17th earl of Oxford, and is still known today as the Nowell Codex of Beowulf.

In terms of western literary tradition, the story of Beowolf begins in medias res ("in the middle of things"), a characteristic of the epics of antiquity, beginning with the Iliad. The poetic style of Beowulf is alliterative, while the Iliad follows dactylic hexameter scansion, both of which are designed to aid in memorization and oral recitation.

In addition to a spirited rendition of Malloy's score, the musicians—Gary Grundei (keyboards and musical direction), Todd Bilsborough (percussion, Mark Jennings (clarinet), Juli Royster (bass), and Jon Stubbs (trombone)—provide emotive atmospherics to the action. M. Curtis Grittner's set design is fully integrated throughout the theatre and deftly lit by Sean Mallary.

The Catamount's presentation of Beowulf runs through March 18. For tickets: thecatamounts.org.

Bob Bows



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