Whoever said that the musical theatre epic was dead? Today's inflated economics and pop-opera-unfriendly climate might suggest that there's no longer room for huge, sweeping stories in musical theatre, but a new show Off-Broadway - yes, Off-Broadway - proves that's not the case. Instead, the best way to tell a huge story might just be to tell it as small as possible.
Don't believe me? Get to the Irish Repertory Theatre, see the company's dazzling production of Beowulf, and watch your doubts vanish. Lenny Pickett and Lindsey Turner's sung-through musical dramatization of the ancient poem has been crammed into one of Off-Broadway's smallest and most uniquely shaped houses, but under the guiding hand of director Charlotte Moore it looks, sounds, and feels better than most of today's biggest Broadway hits.
This achievement shouldn't be possible, at least according to conventional theatrical wisdom: Reducing the most famous English epic from 3100 lines to 75 minutes of music and drama is insanity, and can't result in anything sufficiently serious; trying to do large-scale, complex scenic effects - including a dragon! - on such a tiny stage will only call attention to the surrounding limitations, and distract from any real accomplishments.
But Moore quickly dispels such thoughts by plunging you immediately into the barbaric, ritualistic world of sixth-century Denmark, where honor and history are among the most powerful forces, and fire can often mean the difference between life and death. Fear and distrust reign rampantly, and are personified by the gigantic, murderous Grendel; he of the glowing green eyes and the ability to hide in shadows, he who attacks quickly and leaves a trail of devastation in his wake.
Hrothgar, the Danish king, is unable to cope with the threat, but receives some much-needed help from Beowulf, a stranger from across the sea. Thinking only of posterity and his place in it, he takes on Grendel but doesn't win a decisive victory: he chops off the monster's arm and sends him running off into the night. The threat is temporarily averted, but it's not long before Beowulf must face the wrath of the creature's mother, and prove himself yet again.
All of this, it should be noted, is presented onstage. (This is just the show's first half.) Puppets, of both the regular and shadow variety (designed by Bob Flanagan), describe Beowulf's treacherous voyage to Denmark; Randall Klein's exquisite costumes suggest makeshift armor for Hrothgar and his men, and change two cast members into Grendel and his mother; and impressively detailed lighting from Brian Nason sweeps you from fireside to deepest wilderness to barbarian stronghold in seconds. Only Akira Yoshimura's set disappoints - the real wall of corrugated aluminum is terrific for creating onstage sound effects, but looks wrong; the few other scenic elements are little better.
Regardless, this is an astounding staging from Moore, who hasn't generally demonstrated in her previous productions (which include the recent Endgame, She Stoops to Conquer, and Finian's Rainbow) any hint of the invention she displays here. Yet with Beowulf, she ventures farther into territory usually reserved for Julie Taymor than anyone in recent years has: Her all-puppet evocation of an eerie cavescape teeming with reptilian life is chilling; her depiction of that dragon - Beowulf's last enemy - in two different states of presence is brilliant, and doesn't cheat you out of an exciting, climactic confrontation.
The robustly operatic score is somewhat less distinguished. It has few individual songs to speak of, but is an ever-evolving collage of melody and rhythm as appropriate for the era and locale as for the violent atmosphere Moore works so tirelessly to create. The orchestration, for harmonium (musical director Mark Janas) and harp (Erin Hill), is worthy of praise, and if few specific songs stick with you, the overall effect of the blending of music and sound effects is one of tremendous daring and unique among current musical theatre offerings. (The only misstep is the use of recorded music in some sections of the score; if it's perhaps unavoidable given budgetary constraints, the effect is jarring.)
Only once does the material get away from the authors: A song for Grendel's mother, sung over the bodies of her son and a man she's kidnapped, all but crosses the line into complete camp. But it's the only lapse in an otherwise richly attractive and effective score.
But all the music is delivered with considerable legit bravura by a rock-solid seven-man cast: Richard Barth is an intriguingly humble Beowulf, David Garry is a compelling Hrothgar, Jay Lusteck is a truly threatening Grendel, and Bill Gross is beguilingly feminine as his mother; John Halbach, Shaun R. Parry, and Edwin Cahill are excellent in their roles as well. A few additional players might help beef up the larger group scenes, but this is a tightly cast, impeccably performed show.
The real breakthrough star, though, is Moore, and her contributions to this fulfilling, exciting Beowulf can't be overstated. She could narrow the focus on some moments in the opening scenes to highlight certain characters and plot points more clearly, but her work is otherwise unimpeachable. You can't help but think when Beowulf sings of his hopes for immortality that Moore's work - and much of the rest of this Beowulf - will likewise be discussed, dissected, and passionately remembered for many years to come.