Beowulf, a CurtainUp review CurtainUp

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A CurtainUp Review
David Garry as Hrothgar
David Garry as Hrothgar in Beowulf
(Photo: Carol Rosegg)
The epic narrative poem Beowulf, of course, long has been a staple of English literature classes, often studied at the start of a term owing to its being the first significant work extant in the language, albeit written down in a version of English close to unrecognizable by most modern folk. And, alas, many students later tend to recall Beowulf, if at all, as droning poetry rather than as an exciting tale of a legendary hero who defeated monsters and saved an imperiled nation.

But in today's environment of incredible film action heroes, the current musical adaptation by the Irish Repertory Theatre seems utterly apt. Additionally, Charlotte Moore's sparkling and lucid production would be a wonderful teaching tool, were it available to those high school seniors who reliably groan as they begin their year-long wade through the motherland's millennium and a half of literary treasures.

One must imagine that much of the Irish Rep's devoted and substantially subscription audience brings some favorable memories of the material to their theater seats, for total unfamiliarity would produce considerable disorientation. There is no narrator per se here, although much of the mostly-sung production is nevertheless expressed in the past tense, as if narration and the action itself were running simultaneously. The approach is generally effective, and the simple pageantry of the production along with imaginative use of masks and puppetry appropriately give this Beowulf a storybook environment, although never in the cloying tones often heard in children's theater.

Both the masks and puppetry no doubt were at least indirectly influenced by Julie Taymor, the creator-in-chief of The Lion King. Puppets here range from the large (fish and dragon) to the small (sailors, lizards, and flying insects) and greatly enhance an otherwise minimalist production, remarkably arresting and even haunting in its fluid grace and dazzling incorporation of lighting and sound.

The distinctive instrumental music, largely performed by two very effective onstage musicians on harmonium and harp, sometimes is enhanced by recorded supplements and a tambourine, and the singing, often in choral harmonies, effectively conveys the essential tribal rituals and metric rhythms of the source material. The practical but generally not dangerous wooden swords also effectively double as percussion instruments.

The vocalists all are strong, and the occasional solos, while not easily identified as individual songs, are delivered with considerable purity, conviction, and crystal-clear diction. In an unexpected casting move, the title character is portrayed by the smallest of the actors (Richard Barth), and his diminutive appearance is accented by a delicate tenor voice. While these features may be ironic for a legendary hero, they ultimately work. His tune "My Song Will Live Forever," with its oft-repeated central lyric, registers as an assertive yet still humble self-proclamation. However, near the end of the show, a shift by the character to a falsetto voice, apparently to acknowledge his attainment of elderly status, is somewhat jarring and may confuse some in the audience.

The production almost universally succeeds in creating sufficient suspension of disbelief in the audience, yet two exceptions come to mind: Why is the monster Grendel's severed arm left suspended from the ceiling for the duration of the play, and couldn't sound of the beast be remixed? Currently this comes across rather feebly, instead suggesting a combination of the early King Kong and a lost cow.

For this work to be announced as a "rock opera" may be the result of marketing advice, but this production should in no way be lumped in with the likes of Tommy or Jesus Christ, Superstar, early models in the sub-genre. In stark contrast, Beowulf is a considerably understated (especially in its welcome natural sound design) and gentle work, even while being faithful to the tale of grandiose battles with monsters and depiction of oversized bravado and revelry. Its elegant choral final segment concludes with a brief but lovely vocal coda sung beautifully by Ms. Hill, the harpist.

Directed by Charlotte Moore
Musical direction by Mark Janas
Music and Lyrics by Lenny Pickett
Adaptation and Lyrics by Lindsey Turner
Choreography by Barry McNabb
Set Design: Akira Yoshimura
Cast: Richard Barth (Beowulf), David Garry (Hrothgar), John Halbach (Hrethric), Shaun R. Parry (Unferth), Jay Lusteck (Grendel/King), Bill Gross (Grendel's Mother/King), and Edwin Cahill (Wiglaf). Onstage musicians are Mark Janas (Conductor/Harmonium) and Erin Hill (Harp).
Costume Design: Randall Klein
Lighting Design: Brian Nason
Sound Design: Zachary Williamson
Monsters and puppets: Bob Flanagan
rom ; Running time: 1 hour, 15 minutes (no intermission).
Irish Rep, 132 West 22nd St. (212) 727-2737
From 10/07/05 to 11/13/05--extended to 11/27/05
Wed to Sat at 8 PM; matinees Wed, Sat and Sun at 3pm
Tickets: $50 and $45 Viewed by Brad Bradley at the Saturday, October 15 evening performance.
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