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Beowulf: A Thousand Years of Baggage

When most people think of Beowulf, they don't think of musical theatre. They most likely don't think of rock music, mtv choreography, or humor. If anything, they might remember other people's adaptations of the story (Neil Gaiman's recent CGI film comes to mind), or studying the dusty tale in English class.

And this is what makes Jason Craig's text for Beowulf: A Thousand Years of Baggage so interesting- not merely a retelling of the tale of a man fighting monsters, it becomes the story of a cultural icon fighting the historical critics who want to define and explicate him.

The play begins with three academics (Christopher Kuckenbaker, Jessica Jelliffe, and Beth Wilmurt) sitting down to present a panel or lecture on Beowulf. They all are very pleased with themselves and their knowledge of their topic (although they all contradict each other), until the feedback from their microphones begins to morph into an overture and they themselves become characters in the tale.

The author also plays Beowulf in an inspired turn, his large-but-doughy glasses-and-leather physique contrasting with the academics' description of the man, allowing the audience to create their own Beowulf in that contrasting mental space. The script is fascinating- Charles Ludlam once said that the verbal tricks of Joyce's Finnegan's Wake frightened the literary world into years of naturalism and minimalism- here Craig delivers a new and poetic language composed of repetition, tautology, current slang, Middle English, and profanity. His story takes unexpected turns and entertains while making a very clear point about the reductive power of criticism.

The music, by recent Jonathan Larson award-winner Dave Malloy (who also plays King Hrothgar), is wonderful- it feels a bit like Weill, with those swinging trombones, but has the power of rock and roll behind it. Like the text, the music also does not shy away from strange and unusual modes of expression. Sometimes the volume of the music makes it difficult to understand the words (CDs sold in the lobby are more coherent), which detracts from the theatrical experience. The show is also presented at the Abrons Arts Center Henry Street Settlement, which, while a lovely proscenium stage, distances the audience a bit from the action, precluding a more visceral reaction to the show.

The cast is quite impressive. Craig is a hoot as the overblown hero and Malloy makes a fine impression as Hrothgar. The academics each get their moment to shine, with some amazing standout moments. Anna Ishida and Shaye Troha, as the Warriors, practically aerobicize through the play, while belting at the tops of their lungs.
It's a very intriguing and very funny play. It's worth a look, and several hours of after-show debate.

Beowulf: A Thousand Years of Baggage
Written by Jason Craig with music by Dave Malloy and directed by Rod Hipskind
March 31 through April 18
The Abrons Arts Center's Harry de Jur Playhouse is located at 466 Grand Street @ Pitt
Wednesday-Saturday at 8PM, Sunday at 5PM

The tickets OvationTix at 866-811-4111.

For tickets or to check out clips from Beowulf visit

Photos by Jensen Studios NYC

  1. Jason Craig as Beowulf
  2. Beth Wilmurt, Christopher Kuckenbaker & Jessica Jelliffe as the Academics



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