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Tuesday, September 13, 2016

'Beowulf: A Thousand Years of Baggage' Live-Stage: Original Nordic Noir Rocks Hard '70s Style



The Trinity Repertory Company, which is the state theater of Rhode Island, in Providence chooses wisely regarding selecting the '70s-style rock musical "Beowulf: A Thousand Years" to open its 53rd season that is titled "Ghosts of the Past, Dreams of the Future." This musical based on a 9th century epic story/poem runs through October 9. Of course, Trinity is running "A Christmas Carol" from November 5 through New Year's Eve. They are sandwiching the classic-style dramedy "Appropriate" about a death forcing estranged family members to visit the spirits of their past in between these productions.

The repertorytastic quirky "Beowulf" is the creation of long-time collaborators Jason Craig and Dave Malloy, who offer their insights regarding this play in an interview for the Trinity program for the play. 

Trinity Artistic Director Curt Columbus amazingly perfectly assembles the multiple simultaneously rapidly moving pieces of "Beowulf." Having Danish king Hrothgar and his army of female warriors punked out Mad Max style complete with dyed and mohawked 'dos and football shoulder pads greatly enhances the production. Columbus also shows why he gets the big bucks in a very clever scene that uses an old-school overhead projector to literally (and hilariously) illustrate one of the major battles in the story/poem.

Big burly (but manscaped) Brown University theater program alum Charlie Thurston rocks in every sense as the titular early superhero. His hunky good looks, powerful voice, and hilarious parodying of meta-human swaggering make him the one you want to call to slay every form of  monster and dragon. He particularly shines in the song "Body," which sounds a great deal like a tune from a '90s alternative group and is quite violent without being femme.

Twenty-nine year Trinity veteran Stephen Berenson puts that experience to good us in his portrayals of Grendel and the alter ego of that creature. His spot-on comic timing makes his appearing in this space that began life as a vaudeville theater very apt.

Other fun comes in the form of the verbal and physical brass young stud versus cranky foul-mouthed old man battles between Beowulf and and Grendel. The wars of words evoke such strong thoughts of the awesome arguments between Joel McHale's Jeff Winger and nasty and crude old man Leonard of the sitcom "Community" that you expect Beowulf to shout "screw you, Grendel" in one scene.

Further, the timing of this production awesomely coincides with the series of Unreal TV reviews on the Australian DVD releases of Nordic Noir television series. Beowulf being from what is now part of  Sweden and being summoned to Denmark to slay the "monster" Grendel terrifically ties into the Danish/Swedish series "The Bridge," which has season-long cases that prompt police forces from Malmo, Sweden and Copenhagen to work together.

"Beowulf" is also near and dear to the heart of Unreal TV due to an S1 "Star Trek: Voyager" episode in which the crisis of the week thrusts naive Ensign Harry Kim into this epic tale. The following photo is evidence both of Columbus providing the audience an art project during the intermission and of a Trekker who shall remain shameless paying homage to "Voyager."


It is clear from the opening scene that Craig and Malloy acknowledge that the original "Beowulf" is not so near-and-dear to the hearts of the millions of students who have had to read and analyze it during the last several centuries. The action commences with three middle-aged academics/Greek chorus straight out of Middlebury or another small but respected liberal arts college conducting an amusing seminar on the story/poem. The competing pronunciations of some Old English words and the bickering analyses of the play itself will prompt flashbacks to graduates of those institutions of higher learning.

The alternative take on "Beowulf" includes placing Grendel in a sympathetic light despite the massive malicious death and destruction attributed to that "villain." Both the academics, the creature himself, and the mother of that monster explain how he comes to be an excitable boy. 

The academics/chorus demolish the little that remains of the wall between themselves near the end of the play when one of their members directly challenges a now-older Beowulf regarding his compulsion to keep fighting. A highly frustrated Thurston shines once more as he howls (it had to come in somewhere) that he just wants to kill "the f**king dragon." 

All of this wraps up at the perfect moment at which both the audience and the incredibly hard-working cast are content to call it an evening. The latter does leave the former wanting more but also ready for a short break before battling the next f**king dragon. It is highly anticipated that "Appropriate" will provide a terrific opportunity to get engrossed in such a struggle.

Anyone with questions about Trinity or the musical version of "Beowulf" (sorry, I would not be any use with term papers on the source material) is strongly encouraged to email me. You can also connect on Twitter via @tvdvdguy.