CAMBRIDGE — Have your visits to the storied mead halls of “Beowulf” been woefully short on mead? Do you have trouble keeping your Scyldings and your Scylfings straight? Would you like to see a presentation of this epic tale ditch the tinkly harp accompaniment and give its WWF-worthy hero the rock band he so obviously deserves? Then head out to Oberon, where Banana Bag & Bodice’s “Beowulf: A Thousand Years of Baggage” is back in business, still trying, among other things, to help Grendel get over his mother fixation.
Banana Bag & Bodice itself is not quite a thousand years old, having emerged in San Francisco in 1999, the brainchild of Jason Craig and Jessica Jelliffe, who are now married and have an actual child. In 2000, BB&B moved to Brooklyn; “Beowulf: A Thousand Years of Baggage” debuted in 2008 and made brief visits to Oberon in 2010 and, as part of the ART’s Emerging America Festival, 2011. Now the 80-minute show is getting a three-week run in which to swing a battle ax or two.
The set-up is as ominous, for anyone who had to read “Beowulf” in school, as it is simple. Seated stage right, three professorially dressed academics — Rick Burkhardt, Jelliffe, and Lisa Clair — are conducting a symposium on the poem, making observations like “An epic story poem is, well, a long story poem, possibly in long-story-poem form” and describing Beowulf as “the ultimate violent male in a society of violent males.” But as the trio turn their attention to Grendel, Burkhardt, without benefit of costume change, begins to morph into the monster. That cues the appearance of the Danish king Hrothgar: Dressed in an orange red bathrobe and sporting a homemade crown, Brian McCorkle stands on his piano stool (he doubles as the pianist) and sings, “Welcome to our mead hall Heorot.” Grendel makes himself more than welcome, gobbling up Hrothgar’s noble hall thanes while boasting of “hurting and smashing and eating their heads.” It’s a dangerous business: cradling him in her arms, his mother (Jelliffe) warns him, “Be careful when murdering midnight to morning.”
Beowulf: A Thousand Years of Baggage
The orchestra that backs all this is an odd, klezmery sort of outfit: piano, guitar, bass, percussion, clarinet, saxophone, and a pair of trombones. The music by Dave Malloy is tuneful but not memorable; Craig’s lyrics do not shirk the banal. Backup “warrior vocals” are provided by Anna Ishida and Shaye Troha, who also shimmy and shake.
Beowulf, when he finally appears, on the catwalk over the bar, is an unforgettable sight: a less-than-buff Craig, in spectacles and patched jeans, with what looks like rabbit fur over his shoulders and a black-leather blood-pressure cuff on his left arm, announcing, “This is my body. I am man, sir.” After teaming with Hrothgar for an extended and not terribly well sung duet about what monsters look like (“A Face Like Yours and Mine”), Beowulf engages with Burkhardt’s goofily grinning Grendel, and the evening gathers steam as they argue over whether Grendel is a hell-spawned murderer or just a good son trying to put meat on the table for his mom.
Jelliffe, in the duets Grendel’s mother sings with her son, has a powerful, rewarding voice, and so does Clair when she becomes Beowulf’s third and final opponent, the treasure-hoarding dragon. But this show just has too much mismatched baggage, from the ambiguous musical profile to the thumb-wrestling face-off between Beowulf and Grendel to the two fish tanks standing in for the lake where Grendel and his mother live to the flashing mirror ball and the warrior vocalists bopping around with signs saying “Yay!” after Beowulf dispatches Grendel’s mother. It’s cute, but it doesn’t really elucidate, or even update, this thousand-year-old poem about courage and honor and doing the right thing. There is, however, mead at the bar.