Real life and fiction became a bit muddied last month when Jessica Jelliffe was playing Grendel’s mother in “Beowulf — A Thousand Years of Baggage” at the Adelaide Festival in Australia. She was right in the middle of the emotional scene in which she faces off with Beowulf, the warrior who killed her monster son. As she portrayed a grieving mother seeking vengeance onstage, she suddenly heard an infant crying in a dressing room offstage. That baby was her 5-month-old son. And the actor playing Beowulf was Jason Craig, her husband and the father of her child.
“It was so much more poignant having our infant son downstairs,’’ she says. “It is strange that Grendel’s mother and Beowulf had a baby. It was really difficult to hear him crying. He was wearing a pair of monster socks that the actor who plays Grendel gave him.”
The husband and wife team are cofounders and co-artistic directors of Banana Bag & Bodice, a Brooklyn, N.Y.-based collaborative that first produced “Beowulf” in 2008 with the Shotgun Players in Berkeley, Calif. It was seen briefly at Oberon in 2010 and 2011 and returns to the Cambridge barroom for a three-week American Repertory Theater run that begins Tuesday.
Craig is also the author of the piece, which he describes as a “SongPlay,” and he wrote the part of Grendel’s mother specifically for Jelliffe. “It’s weird to suppose what he was thinking when he was writing for me,’’ she says. “We didn’t intend to get married and have children, and now we are married and have a kid. Jason writes from the subconscious, and he somehow saw the mother in me.”
Two days after the family returned from Australia, Craig gamely got on the phone for an interview with the Globe. The baby, Charlie Patrick Craig Jelliffe, had been up crying all night, and his dad was spent — so fatigued that he stopped cold in mid-sentence. Charlie’s mother, however, was unfazed by a sleepless night on top of jet lag. She called back and took over the interview.
The medieval epic is a manly man’s superhero saga, originally told around the fire. The story focuses on the ravaged realm of the Danish King Hrothgar, whose mead hall has been under attack by Grendel for 14 years. His warriors have been savagely slaughtered, and Beowulf arrives to slay the beast and restore peace.
But this adaptation is not your typical Old English scholar’s tale. A 2008 Variety review waxed poetic about the production’s “severed-limb gore, audience wetting, toy action figures and a lot of periodic seminar-speak.” The Scandinavian society in which the story unfolds is undeniably patriarchal: The title character is described in the play as the “ultimate violent male in a society of violent males.” But Craig and his collaborators provide a rich matriarchal counterpart. Grendel’s mother is an eloquent avenger, while Beowulf is a beefy bruiser who can barely string a sentence together. In fact, the title character describes himself as “slightly dyslexic.” And the monster Grendel is a bit of a mama’s boy. The adaptation unabashedly amps up the Freudian elements of the mother-son relationship.
The strong maternal role resonates for Craig and Jelliffe, who were both brought up by single mothers. “His mom was a single mother who raised three boys in the ’70s in Ireland,’’ Jelliffe says. “She is his superhero, and he looks at things through the eyes of his strong, fantastic mother.”
Craig did not grow up reading comic books or watching action movies, nor did he study “Beowulf,’’ which is written in Old English and requires knowledge of what is by now, for English speakers, essentially a foreign language. Jelliffe gave him a copy of Seamus Heaney’s 2000 translation of the poem, and it sat on the shelf gathering dust for years. But when the Shotgun Players commissioned him to write a play, he chose to adapt “Beowulf.” None of the creators, including composer Dave Malloy, had ever read the epic before they began working on the adaptation. “I double majored in music and English literature, and somehow I got away with never being forced to read it,’’ Malloy says.
The play is framed with a trio of academics conducting a panel discussion about the epic. As the esteemed professors argue about the merits of the language versus the brutality of the plot, they morph into characters from the tale. The goal is to contrast the way contemporary scholars clinically dissect this old artifact with the way the story was originally told by warriors in communal settings. “A theme of the work is to reclaim it from academia and to put it back in the hands of people, to put it back in the world of entertainment,” says Malloy, who wrote the show’s score and played the Danish king in the original production.
The one-act play, which clocks in at 70 minutes, was first produced in traditional theaters, but the troupe has since performed it in rock clubs and bars. “As soon as we put it in a bar, where people were drinking and hooting and hollering, it really came to life,’’ says Malloy, who is also a co-creator of “Three Pianos,” which was a hit at the ART’s Loeb Drama Center in the 2011-12 season. That piece, which featured the music of Schubert along with free-flowing spirits, was informed by Malloy’s experience with “Beowulf.” The actors poured wine for the audience during “Three Pianos,’’ and while the “Beowulf” cast won’t be offering free drinks, Malloy points out that Oberon is a venue where “mead-like beverages are available.”
The production aims to have a playful quality. An underwater battle is simulated in a fish tank. The eclectic score is a mix of riffs inspired by Tom Waits and Kurt Weill, along with a blend of techno, classical, and action-hero music. There is a live band onstage, along with two female backup singers who play the surviving warriors of the kingdom. All of which is to say, the piece does not have the somber mood of a graduate seminar. “We have had walkouts over the years,’’ Jelliffe says. “Some people have a particular perspective on ‘Beowulf’ and perhaps think we are not being as reverent as we should be.”
The piece is unabashedly violent, but it’s not gory, Malloy says. The characters are portrayed with sympathy but without any attempt to whitewash their murderous actions. “It asks the question, ‘Is violence ever necessary? Is it ever a valid option?’’’ he says. “We would like to live in a world where there is no violence, but the show doesn’t come down one way or another.”
By today’s standards, the original epic is rife with moral ambiguity. Grendel is a monster who kills for the sake of killing. But his mother’s murderous attempt is an act of vengeance, motivated by the fact that her son has been slaughtered. Like any good actor, Jelliffe tries to get inside her character: “Her feelings are my feelings, and her perspective is my perspective. Whether I personally believe in killing or murder, I have to believe in it onstage. And it is so much easier having a kid myself. Her son has been killed, and she wants to take revenge. This is a different time, but in her time, I probably would have done the same. I believe in her. It’s very simple.”
And for Jelliffe, there is something cathartic about performing this strong woman’s role set in a world ruled by machismo. “These are deep-rooted concepts that are hard to talk about — the idea of retribution and vengeance,’’ she says. “We are human beings, but we are still part animal, in a way. If we are able to talk about the aspects of our animalistic side, it will hopefully help us to be better human beings and to have a better civilization.”