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Review: Thrilling BEOWULF: A THOUSAND YEARS OF BAGGAGE

The thought of seeing a dramatic version of the epic poem Beowulf may make many people cringingly remember the sweaty days of undergrad and trying to parse meaning out of Olde English while being lorded over by a condescending professor and at least one overly enthusiastic classmate who won't shut up about it. Or maybe that's just me. The good news is that Tritnity Rep's production of BEOWULF: A THOUSAND YEARS OF BAGGAGE is not only hilarious, but 100% accessible even to those who have never read, and maybe don't want to read, the book. This play is half academic lecture--but funny, and half manic musical fever dream, which come together beautifully to create a spectacle of light and sound. Punctuated by dramatic, towering sets and scowling warrior maidens, it feels like Mad Max meets Bladerunner set in a wholly new dystopia. This is a play that is fully immersive and unlike anything else out there. It's so exciting to know the basic plot of a story, but still be surprised with what comes next, and this production is unexpected and unique in the best way.

The play begins with a panel of three academics summarizing the story of Beowulf--complete with slides. Anne Scurria, Janice Duclos, and Stephen Berenson argue over pronunciation of place names in Beowulf, and Berenson eventually morphs into Grendel, Beowulf's first challenge and Scurria morphs into Grendel's mother who he will later do battle with as she seeks to avenge her son. The framing of the play, with the panel of experts, is incredibly helpful--as much as it is hilarious. One thing that people tend to forget is that for as long as epic poems are, there frequently isn't that much action. There's really a lot of downtime between battles, so the academic panel serves to fill in the inevitable story gaps for the audience, while delightfully skewering academia, and making this production much more interesting than just one long action scene.

Our Beowulf is played by Charlie Thurston, who poses and flexes and embodies the masculine ideal. He's dumb, but pretty, and he gets mad when you call him dumb. He just wants to fight, but he frequently has to wait around while the academics dissect his every move and thought. Thurston perfectly captures the pouty inertia of a High School jock who is frequently praised for football performance, but who has nothing to do during class. Joe Wilson Jr. plays King Hrothgar, whose kingdom is being terrorized by the monster Grendel, and who calls on Beowulf to come save the day. Hrothgar is the embodiment of wealthy excess who worries about his subjects who are being eaten at a rapid rate by Grendel, but instead of dealing with it directly, he gets drunk and waits for Beowulf to save the day. Wilson is delightfully over the top in a blinged-out silver coat.

While all of the cast are excellent, attention must be paid to Rachael Warren's exceptional song in Act II. Warren plays one of the Warriors, four battle maidens who live at the court of King Hrothgar. While the characters create needed action and drama, they don't have much to do besides grimacing and bursting into song. As the narrative comes to a close, Warren sits down at the piano and sings a simple but haunting song about the role of being a warrior, and reminds the audience there there is no musical note that she can't hit perfectly. While the rest of the production is outstanding, and showcases the best use of an overhead projector ever, it's almost worth the price of admission for this song alone. Unless you're a monster who lives at the bottom of a lake, it will send shivers down your spine.

Under the expert direction of Curt Columbus, Trinity Rep has brought this intimidating epic to life in a way that is thrilling and spectacular. It's a production that feels almost like riding a rollercoaster, but you can never see the twists and turns coming, which makes it all the more fun.

Beowulf: A Thousand Years of Baggage running through October 9, 2016 in Trinity Rep's Chace Theater. Tickets are available at www.trinityrep.com, by calling (401) 351-4242 or at the theater's box office at 201 Washington St., Providence.

Anne Scurria as Grendel's Mother and Charlie Thurston as Beowulf in Beowulf:A Thousand Years of Baggage directed by Curt Columbus. Set design by Michael McGarty, lightingdesign by Dan Scully and costume design by Olivera Gajic. Photo Mark Turek.

Regional Awards


From This Author - Andria Tieman


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