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"Beowulf." Adaptation and lyrics by Lindsey Turner.
Music and lyrics by Lenny Pickett.
Directed by Charlotte Moore.
At the Irish Repertory Theatre, 132 W. 22nd St., NYC,
Oct. 7- Nov. 27, 2005.
Performances Wed-Sat. at 8 PM; W, S and Sunday at 3.
Beowulf, the hero of the sixth century eponymous Anglo-Saxon epic, may have battled sea monsters, dragons, fierce trolls and their fiercer moms, but in the adept rock-opera adaptation by Lindsey Turner at Irish Repertory Theatre, Beowulf proves every bit the post-modern hero, a talkative cousin of Rambo and Batman. By remaining true to the mood and primitive setting of the original, director Charlotte Moore, sound designer Zachary Williamson and lighting designer Brian Nason created both an action-figure adventure and a ritualistic evocation that is powerfully affecting and not without its sense of humor in the use of giant puppets and shadow-narratives.
The action begins with a night attack by Grendel (Jay Lusteck), the electric-eyed monster (think King Kong with seaweed), and the arrival of Beowulf (tenor Richard Barth) by Viking ship. The young hero has heard of the challenge and longs to both build his reputation and repay the Danes for saving his father's life. The king welcomes him but a rival named Unferth (Shaun R. Parry) confronts him as a self-promoting liar. Young and cocky, the undeterred Beowulf underestimates the beast and must go a second round. Although he pins Grendel's arm on the wall, victory remains illusive when Grendel's mother retaliates. (Underplayed in this production, this female villain excited my young, feminist imagination when I first read the saga.) Beowulf slays her but not before Unferth, who has become his ally, perishes in her underwater lair.
Conflating the pagan worlds of druidic myths with the new Christian doctrines, the saga identifies outcast enemies like Grendel with absolute Evil. This balancing act between the two theologies is part of the charm of both the epic and the opera. For Beowulf, honor, not wealth, is the essence of life. Like a gypsies from "Fame," he longs to live forever -- in legend. He revels in the many battles that await him upon his return home, and only with great reluctance accepts the crown of the Geats in a definitive scene that is very moving. The crown is not his reward; it is his gold watch, his retirement from active life. When he is called upon in old age to destroy a dragon in its subterranean haunt, his heart celebrates even though he may face his death. "We can only leave our song," he sings. "Do not forget my song."
Despite the metaphysical theme, such fabulous tales are often the stuff of children's theatre, which invites the absurdities of monsters. The adult audience may need a shift in perspective to enjoy the wild-eyed dragon with its giant claws (puppetry and masks by Bob Flanagan) as it makes its way (thanks to two actors) down a theatre aisle to the stage. The adoption of shadow-puppetry for long voyages, used twice here, has become a dramatic staple. It seems to me a failure of the creative imagination in this cut-out form, a curious substitute for the contemporary slide show or film sequence.
The score and lyrics by Lenny Pickett, the musical director of "Saturday Night Live," capture the stately male dignity -- the honor and dangers -- of warriors with short life spans. The Danes enter singing, and as they gathered around the fire, they remember the "bitter warmth" of battles lost and won. The several dances, inspired by Celtic dance, are natural outgrowths of the mood, even the court masque where female companions are masks and flowing scarves. The score embraces the choral and the harmonics of the male vocal range, but its possibilities are not explored. At the close, when Erin Hill, the harpist, adds her lovely soprano voice to the saga, transporting it from the pagan halls of the Anglo-Saxons to today and history, it becomes clear how much more could have been done. After all, the epic itself includes the Danish queen and Beowulf, although without a son, was married.
In graduate school I was so impressed with "Beowulf" I registered for a killer course in Anglo-Saxon, a combination of the worst features of Latin and German. Even today there are few good translations. In "Beowulf," the 80-minute rock opera, the Irish Repertory Theatre has created a small miracle.
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