Adapted by Charlie Bethel
Through Dec. 22 at the Theatre Project
Beowulf, the English language's first literary masterpiece, is a tale with many characters and several important settings. There's the Danish mead hall where King Hrothgar and the visiting Geat warrior Beowulf preside over boozy banquets, as well as the underwater cave where the two monsters, Grendel and his nameless mother, nurse their grievances against the human race. But in Charlie Bethel's terrific stage adaptation, now at the Theatre Project, the Minneapolis writer is aided by no sets, no props, no costumes, and no other actors.
He doesn't need them. Bethel is such a spellbinding storyteller that the timbered, torch-lit banquet hall seems to materialize against the stage's black-painted walls; Beowulf's chain mail armor and Grendel's scaly skin seem to grow over Bethel's black T-shirt. When the two opponents meet for their climactic battle, Bethel's right arm becomes Beowulf's and his left arm Grendel's, the former hanging onto the latter with ferocious tenacity as the half-human monster twists and turns in an attempt to throw off the Geatland hero. Bethel narrates the battle in a rat-a-tat-tat of percussive consonants, like a hyperventilating sportscaster, until finally Grendel's arm tears free of his torso.
Grendel is bleeding to death as he slinks back to his cave, and Beowulf nails up the severed limb. Now Bethel's narration slows down as he describes, "Above the eaves was Grendel's arm, oozing icy blood." The narration quickens as Beowulf thrusts out his chest and boasts of his victory as if in a locker-room interview, but Bethel slows down again as he becomes Queen Wealhtheow, Hrothgar's consort, who raises a goblet to toast Beowulf. Speaking softly, she reminds him that he cannot take all the prizes he has won this day to his final destination, for death will find us all.
This show's triumph is that it nails all aspects of the book in just 70 minutes: the thrilling, bloody action scenes; the winners' liquor-fueled tales; and just the hint of a deeper, darker theme: inescapable mortality. Indeed the show, like the book, begins with the funeral of one king and ends with the funeral of another. In between are the long evening banquets, where the eating is followed by storytelling, long oral narratives recited by blind harpers and visiting warriors.
Beowulf was one of the more popular tales in mead halls all over northern Europe in the first millennium after Christ, each storyteller memorizing the basic plot points and adding new details. Finally, sometime in the 10th century A.D., an anonymous but obviously gifted writer put an expanded version down on paper in Old English. The manuscript was pretty much ignored until it was rediscovered in the 19th century. It was J.R.R. Tolkien himself who argued in 1936 that the long poem was much more than a historical curiosity; it was a major work of literature that can still affect us emotionally today. How right he was.
Bethel has returned the poem to its roots in the mead halls by becoming an oral storyteller himself, relying on the alliteration that's there in the Old English and on extravagant gestures and changing voices to hold an audience's attention. His arms undulate like waves and stretch taut like sails to describe a sea voyage; his voice descends in pitch as he says, "Deep down in darkness dwelled a monster." Like those old storytellers, he's come up with his own version of the tale, jettisoning two-thirds of the original manuscript to create a compact narrative for today's audiences.
But there's a reason that generations of college freshmen have resented Beowulf assignments. As powerful as the poem can be if you can get your head in the right place, it's not easy to get there. There's such an immense distance between our world of computers and jet planes and Beowulf's world of swords and wooden boats. Bethel does several smart things to get us across that divide. He sometimes talks in the stentorian tones of an Anglo-Saxon bard, but more often he adopts a distinctly American tone-that of the fast-talking salesman: auto-showroom motormouth, the AM radio DJ, the circus sideshow barker, the medicine-show charlatan. Come on over, buddy. How ya doing? Have I got a deal for you!
When Bethel first enters, he is wearing a red fleece jacket and faded jeans, the stage is bare but for a table, chair, and glass of water. Before he says anything, he removes the jacket, his wedding ring, his pocket change, and his wristwatch, as if he were shedding 1,100 years of history with them. His black T-shirt becomes a blank slate; he can take us anywhere, because, now, we're outside of time. We step into the invisible mead hall, and we too are unwashed, drink-softened Danish warriors eager to hear a mesmerizing story. We get our wish.