On the face of it, a musical version of “Beowulf” seems like a decidedly cringe-making concept, but the execution, with music and lyrics by Lenny Pickett, musical director of “Saturday Night Live,” onstage at the Irish Repertory Theatre through Nov. 13, delivers some unanticipated rewards.
Most of the venture’s virtues, perhaps unsurprisingly, are musical in nature, with a strong-voiced seven-man cast making the most of composer Pickett’s richly melodic tonal score. Only after the first 45 minutes or so of the show’s 80-minute, intermissionless duration does the score begin to show signs of the onrushing gelatinousness which eventually sinks it, but not before a fair amount of powerful singing has resounded through the Irish Rep’s comfortable auditorium.
Apart from being a major stumbling block in the academic careers of countless highs school and college literary types, “Beowulf” is thought to be the oldest English epic, located by the Columbia Encyclopedia as having been composed in “the early 8th century by an Anglian bard in the vicinity of Northumbria.”
“Beowulf,” the story continues, “survives in only one manuscript, written A.D. circa 1000 by two scribes and preserved in the British Museum.”
What’s going on down on West 22nd Street, it should be made clear, has nothing whatever to do with Seamus Heaney’s 1999 work.
The Rep program is a bit vague about the show’s sources, except to attribute “adaptation and lyrics” to Lindsey Turner, who apparently collaborated with Pickett on the words, not all that many of which come across with complete clarity in the production directed by the Rep’s redoubtable Charlotte Moore.
The mists of time hang rather heavily over the origins of “Beowulf,” even to the extent of the production’s publicity material referring to it as an “epic 6th century story,” and then shifting gears only a scant 10 lines or so later, dubbing it a “10th century poem.”
But why quibble? Some more measurable harm, however, may have been done when the same press handout called Pickett’s product a “21st century ritualistic rock opera,” which seems to be a far cry from what the Rep’s ambitious “Beowulf” actually is.
What it really is, however, defies categorization. It’s not an oratorio, nor is quite an opera in the formal sense, or a musical play in strictest Broadway terminology.
It is, without doubt, a serious and generally admirable attempt to render one of the literary world’s enduring puzzlers into accessible musical terms. Since composer Pickett’s most notable credit would appear to be SNL, it’s tempting to compare him to a baggy-pants clown whose greatest desire is to play Hamlet.
That, however, wouldn’t be quite fair, since Pickett, described in the program as an “autodidact composer” and a former street performer, has to his credit an opera, “Welfare,” created in tandem with noted filmmaker Fred Wiseman and poet David Slavitt, not to mention connections with Alan Ginsberg, William Burroughs, David Bowie and Talking Heads.
The Rep’s “Beowulf” can trace its history, in a sense, to “Rafferty Rescues the Moon,” the elegant and subtle children’s show the group produced in 1999, in collaboration with set designer Akira Yoshimura and mask-and-puppet maker Bob Flanagan, both of whom are, fortunately, on hand again for the new show.
What Flanagan, Yoshimura, Moore and company have achieved with Pickett’s project is, in addition to creating a new, and frequently fresh, take on “Beowulf,” a kind of trot through a series of theatrical conventions, several of them Asian in origin.
When Beowulf arrives in Denmark to rid the Danes of the dreaded, feared water monster, Grendel and his mother, the journey by sea is presented in the manner of the Indonesian “wayang kulit,” in which two-dimensional figures, made of leather and manipulated by sticks attached to their movable parts, are made to move in silhouette behind an illuminated, translucent fabric sheet.
Later, when the monsters attack the sailors, the scene is realized in a manner richly reminiscent of traditional Japanese puppetry.
Not all of the ideas in the Rep’s “Beowulf” come off quite as well, alas. When an alien king appears to menace the worthy Danes, illuminated green eyes flashing, it’s impossible not to wonder if some new version of the world’s most celebrated simian hadn’t wandered in from the set of a new production of “King Kong.” Later, when the stage is alive with tiny, bright-eyed lizards snakes, dragons and other reptiles entities, it’s as though the people at F.A.O. Schwartz were exhibiting an ill-conceived line of treats for the Christmas trade.
On another level, a human one, the costumes Randall Klein has come up with for Beowulf, Hrothgar, Hrethric, Unferth, Wiglaf and their friends look alarmingly like a fashion layout for the International Male catalogue’s special issue featuring the latest in see-through mesh t-shirts, furry leggings, and, to cite one particularly unfortunate instance, a bizarre brocaded gold lame overblouse for the titular hero.
It’s anybody’s guess, in all likelihood, what folks wore in early days in Denmark and/or Geatland, the last-named location being the name of what eventually became Lower Sweden, including Malmo, Smaaland and environs.
Early announcements of the Irish Rep’s excursion into Scandinavian history, folk tale and mythology bore the title “Beowulf, Remember My Song.” The subtitle, since discarded, indicates an appealing passage, resembling plainsong, delivered by the show’s titular hero, well played and sung by tenor Richard Barth, late in the proceedings.
Barth’s colleagues, most of them flexible baritones, include David Garry, John Halbach, Shaun R. Parry, Edwin Cahill, Bill Gross and Jay Lusteck. Gross and the bulky Lusteck are called upon to double as, respectively, Grendel’s Mother and Grendel himself, with Lusteck, earlier on, having enjoyed a spectacular moment or two as the figure resembling the movies biggest and most beloved monkey.
The maleness of the overall effort, with musical director Mark Janas presiding at a sort of pump organ, is tempered only by the endearing presence of harpist Erin Hill, who lifts her voice in song, albeit only very briefly, late in the proceedings.
In a Rep publication, Artistic Director Moore, in a comment on climate, asserts that “fall is on its windy way, and that the snows of December will surely follow.” Then she takes a massive risk and asks “Can the turkeys be far behind?”
“Beowulf” may not rank as a major Irish Rep triumph, but it never brings to mind creamed pearl onions, chestnut dressing or cranberry preserves.