Thursday, April 9, 2009

Beowulf: A Thousand Years of Baggage


By Jason Craig; music by Dave Malloy. Directed by Rod Hipskind. The Shotgun Players and Banana Bag & Bodice at the Abrons Arts Center. (CLOSED)

Critics are divided on whether Jason Craig's punkish, apparently anti-academic deconstruction of the Anglo-Saxon classic is a rocking good romp or a tiresome and unpolished slog, though most adore Dave Malloy's Tom Waits-ish score. Even some who find lots of fault in the show consider it a fun ride, while Neil Genzlinger's Times review effectively reproduces the bafflement he apparently felt about the show.

Time Out NY A
(David Cote) Ferociously fun...Sorry, classicists: Banana Bag & Bodice's rocked-up riff on the epic poem deviates from the foundational Anglo-Saxon text. And yet, for much of its two hours, it does faithfully present the skeletal events of Beowulf through Dave Malloy's growly Tom Waits–esque tunes and Craig's lyric-naive text, which uses repetitions and studied verbal bumbling to undercut the bloody, ritualized narrative...Seeing this cracked Beowulf may not earn students extra credit, but it's an irresistible excuse to cut class.

New Yorker A
Joyfully raucous and silly...The propulsive, oompah-inflected music, by Dave Malloy (who also has the role of Hrothgar and plays the accordion), brings out the power and the color of the legend, and the performers are uniformly entertaining, from the backup-singing warriors (Shaye Troha and Anna Ishida) to Jason Craig, the playwright, as Beowulf, and, especially, Jessica Jelliffe, as Grendel’s savvy, lake-dwelling mother.

That Sounds Cool A-
(Aaron Riccio) There are shades of John Gardner’s revisionist Grendel, but Dave Malloy and Jason Craig’s songplay is a beast of a different sort, focusing neither on Beowulf’s point of view nor Grendel’s but rather on the subjective interpretations of three damnable academics. The result is a clash between the physical reality of Beowulf (Craig) and the gleeful spin of the academics, who justly double as the villains of the epic poem: Grendel (Christopher Kuckenbaker), Grendel’s Mother (Jessica Jelliffe), and the Dragon (Beth Wilmurt). Oh, and the whole thing’s set to Malloy’s nicely hodge-podged music...It’s Rod Hipskind’s fluid directing that nails the emotional levels...It’s a good balance for Craig’s language, which has a childish directness (e.g., “strong strength” and “sick weird weirdo sicko”) that allows the actors to seriously play with action figures one moment and comically go to slaughter the next...Though some of the scenes are overcooked, the variety of styles and spices keep the show fresh, and though some of the interstitial gristle is unwieldy, it only serves to make the meaty action all the juicier.

Theatermania A-
(Andy Buck) 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 music by Dave 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 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.

Village Voice B+
(Alexis Soloski) Often the songs, though rambunctious, seem ancillary—a percussive rehash of what we've already seen. As to Craig's premise—have academics really harmed the poem? Does Beowulf require so much intervention to render it exciting? Yet Craig's script is engaging and far less willfully abstruse than his previous efforts (The Fall and Rise of the Rising Fallen, Oh What War). Most contemporary translations don't include anything so profane and spirited as Craig's defense of Grendel's murders. His monster explains, "I'm just a fun guy havin' some fuckin' fun."

American Theatre Web B+
(Andy Propst) Blends together both modern sensibilities and the ancient world with flair. The company-designed set ingeniously uses a back wall of square window fans, which look strangely exotic when stacked on top of one another and help contribute to a gorgeous final sequence in the show. Kalbrina Sky Buck's costumes wittily comment on both current styles and perceptions of warrior garb: particularly satisfying are the almost cheerleader-like Viking outfits for two female warriors...Unfortunately, the duality of the show, as it moves from storytelling to analysis, can weary: just as theatergoers are finding themselves drawn into the narrative, the storytelling is undercut by the academics' intrusions. Invariably, though, one's pulled back into this thoughtful deconstruction, and ultimately, this "songplay" adds a small carryon to the "baggage" of legend.

The New York Times B
(Neil Genzlinger) Something well beyond odd; something almost unprocessable...The rollicking incongruity of this production from the Bay Area sends the brain into a sort of does-not-compute mode. Maybe it’s the combination of legendary monster-killer and klezmer music...Mr. Craig is hilariously revenge-of-the-nerdy as Beowulf, his heroic posturing notably at odds with his paunch and his glasses...It’s all done to music (composed by Dave Malloy) that demands to be described as demented; the instruments include accordion, guitar, trombone and saw. The singing starts out as wretched, presumably by design, so that when someone with a real voice shows up (Ms. Jelliffe as Grendel’s angry mother) the effect is striking. Though the original epic poem is obliterated by this juggernaut, a snippet of it is artfully deployed late in the play. And who would have thought that a production as full of noise as this one could end on a note approaching poignancy? It’s the last surprise in a play full of them.

Gothamist B
(John Del Signore) Unlike The Wooster Group, whose radical deconstructions sometimes offer startling new insights into the source material, Banana Bag's Beowulf treatment feels rote, impersonal, and glib. Throw some contemporary slang, some stylized combat, and some pop culture signifiers up on stage, and voila! Downtown theater hipsterati will lap it up, as they did during the performance I attended. The production's broad parody of academic pedantry is simply facile, and Hollywood's recent 3D movie adaptation of Beowulf did a better job of exploring the depths of this ancient myth...Yet it's still a mostly entertaining two hours of theater, despite the company's regrettable decision to present it on a proscenium stage at Abrons Art Center. This is the kind of rollicking show that belongs in a Brooklyn warehouse...Rod Hipskind's inspired direction is fast-paced and fun, peaking with an underwater battle humorously executed with fish tanks and a Gallagher-esque tarp for the first row. But ultimately, it's Malloy's score that makes this worth your 20 bucks.

Backstage C+
(Lisa Jo Sagolla) A theatrical misfire. To achieve its goal of presenting the heroic tale of Beowulf as a visceral adventure with a whiff of parody, the show needs an ensnaring dramatic structure, smarter writing, more-skillful direction, inventive choreography, and a set designed to support a wider variety of staging options...The production trudges predictably back and forth between static scenes of sitcom-level dialogue and banally staged musical selections, virtually all of which are enacted on a raised platform center stage around which the show's eight terrific musicians are sloppily arranged...Despite a narrative fraught with ferocious combat and gory results, the show's storytelling action is performed with bare-bones symbolic movements and laid-back energy that prove neither exciting nor funny. The production's savior is its brilliant musical score composed by Dave Malloy. C
(Fred Backus) In spite of all of this production's wit and style—both of which it has in abundance—Beowulf: A Thousand Years of Baggage is infused with such an air of ambivalence that the only theme that really comes through strongly is that nothing is to be taken too seriously...That Banana Bag and Bodice is a company with a wealth of talent is obvious—Craig's script is nothing if not clever, while director Rod Hipskind and the design team as a whole does an excellent job creating an evocative and appealing spectacle...An experience with some mirth but little joy.

Time Out NY A 13; NYer A 13; That Sounds Cool A- 12; Theatermania A- 12; VV B+ 11; American Theatre Web B+ 11; The New York Times B 10; Gothamist B 10; Backstage C+ 8; C 7; TOTAL: 107/10= 10.7 (B+)

No comments: