The trouble with being a legend is that sooner or later academics will take it upon themselves to publish scholarly tomes and deliver lectures about you. This isn't so detrimental to your reputation if you're a real-life icon. Eggheads might devote entire careers to arguing about whether William Shakespeare really wrote King Lear or whether Abraham Lincoln was gay, but the fact that said legends actually lived tempers the intellectual twitter. But what if you're the sort of legend who only exists in, well, legend? What can the Hamlets, Zeuses, and Rip Van Winkles do to emerge from the ivory tower unscathed when their very existence fundamentally depends upon words on a stone tablet, piece of parchment, or page?
Such is the predicament facing the great Nordic hero Beowulf, whose unhappy fate it is to be the subject of a poetic saga so epic that the British Library deems the only existing manuscript of the masterpiece the most important surviving work of Anglo-Saxon poetry. Ever since a bunch of anonymous monks enshrined in written verse an ancient oral narrative about the warrior's skirmishes with a triptych of bloodthirsty fiends in the 11th century, Beowulf has been trying to live down this tagline. It hasn't been easy. Centuries of cerebral tracts covering everything from the significance of arms and feet in the work to its Biblical overtones have all but turned Scandinavia's premier sex symbol into a yawning bore. These days, despite the efforts of filmmakers like Robert Zemeckis and writers like Michael Crichton to bring the legend to life, the word "Beowulf" is likely to send any self-respecting English literature major running out the door.
Now, in an act of theatrical heroism bold enough to rival Beowulf's fight with the fearsome monster Grendel, the ever-inventive New York– and San Francisco–based theater company Banana Bag and Bodice, in collaboration with Berkeley's Shotgun Players, has managed to wrestle the legend's mangled reputation from the ravenous jaws of academia. Beowulf: A Thousand Years of Baggage provides the ideal antidote to anyone who ever had to suffer through stultifying lessons on "Beowulf and the Anglo-Saxon Tradition" in school. Banana Bag and Bodice isn't the first company to have grasped rock music as the ideal metaphor for capturing Beowulf's rebellious legend onstage. (That honor probably falls to a 1977 Canadian production.) But the group's gut-gripping new rock opera (or "SongPlay," to coin composer Dave Malloy's preferred descriptor for the piece) rages with an anarchic energy reminiscent of the most ardent anthems by Queen or Siouxsie and the Banshees. Yet despite restoring Beowulf to his rightful throne as pop icon extraordinaire, the genius of this production lies in acknowledging a puzzling paradox that threatens to dampen the show's fiery rebelliousness: that Beowulf wouldn't be the literary king that he is today if scholars hadn't given him his crown.
The central conceit of Beowulf: A Thousand Years of Baggage lies in the contrast between two opposing universes. The first is the world of academia, represented by a trio of stiff, black-clad intellectuals (Cameron Galloway, Jessica Jelliffe, and Christopher Kuckenbacker) engaged in delivering a panel discussion about the "epic poem story tale" of Beowulf from seated positions in a narrow, rectangular pit at the front of the stage. The second world represented in the play transports us to a sparse Nordic landscape in which punk warriors in makeshift helmets and fake-fur cuffs rampage the land to the rough rhythms of a motley group of musicians similarly attired in caveman drag. This is Beowulf's terrain, and it's as wild as the academics' strip out front is tame.
The scholars introduce sections of Beowulf's narrative and exchange repetitious platitudes about Anglo-Saxon poetry as if they're reciting a bad pastiche of Gertrude Stein. Meanwhile, Beowulf and his merry band rock out to Malloy's defiantly cacophonous musical score, which seamlessly blends an array of influences including Kurt Weill, klezmer, and the Clash. Writer and actor Jason Craig's first entrance as the titular hero, bursting through a white-paper screen in Mohawk and bovver boots to boast, "I will wrestle that man beast and best that whore stain/I will test man against monster and monster against thane," is concert stadium hyperbole. Low-hanging microphones allow performers to snarl out lyrics from crouching, crawling, and reclining positions or to dance and sing while swinging on the junglelike cables like monkeys. The ominous post-punk throb of a synthesized bass as Beowulf circles his prey whets our animal expectations for the battle that lies ahead, while sickening crunching sounds mimic the noise of monsters feasting on human bones.
But despite the contrasts, the worlds of academia and Dark Age Scandinavia quickly collide. Scholars morph into monsters, tearing apart human flesh with the same relish they bring to deconstructing texts. Meanwhile, the warrior and his adversaries engage in Freudian-tinged discussions before going in for the kill. Even the battle scenes themselves are intellectually stylized pursuits in director Rod Hipskind's tautly staged production. Beowulf and Grendel exchange arm locks in slow motion like malfunctioning automata as the scholars hold up explanatory sign cards. When Beowulf takes on Grendel's vengeful mother at the bottom of a lake, the combatants snap on water wings, while the academics, having donned snorkeling gear, use fish tanks to demonstrate the fight.
As much as Beowulf tries to break out of the ivory tower, he cannot escape. Terrifying monsters fall at the hero's feet, but ultimately even the great warrior cannot compete with the Norton edition of Beowulf translated by Seamus Heaney. Academia reclaims the legend for itself, but not before Beowulf earns himself a suitably premature — albeit decidedly unglamorous — rock star's death.
"I won't be a rock star. I will be a legend," the late, great pop icon Freddie Mercury once said. Courtesy of Banana Bag and Bodice and academe, lucky Beowulf gets to be both.