Oberon’s Beowulf finds itself in the wrong place, at the wrong time

Jessica Jelliffe and Rick Burkhardt give it their best effort
Jessica Jelliffe and Rick Burkhardt give it their best effort.

Had it opened before the bombing at the Boston Marathon, “Beowulf – A Thousand Years of Baggage” might be a different experience.

Unfortunately for everyone, it did not. It opened shortly after the attack, causing the image of a giant, dismembered and bloodied arm — and the subsequent dialogue about a mother holding her wounded (adult) child to her bosom — to hit just a little too close to home for this reviewer.

At this performance all the jokes fell flat, despite the artists’ best efforts and the crowd’s apparent willingness to play along. It just felt like the wrong show for that particular day.

One hopes that perhaps this problem can be fixed with the help of a little time. Because, at its heart, “Beowulf” is a smart, funny and irreverent show that could only benefit from the full attention of a playful audience with a few glasses of mead under its collective belt. The actors and musicians are both playful and eager to engage the crowd, if only the crowd were in a state of mind to be engaged. Moreover, the production’s concept is a delightfully light reinterpretation of the weighty, epic poem that dates back somewhere between the eighth and 11thcenturies.

In the time-worn text, Beowulf is “the ultimate masculine male,” but here, Jason Craig imbues him with the essence of a bumbling professional wrestler with rock star gravitas. His nemesis Grendel (Rick Burkhardt) could easily do double duty as a demented, cartoonish villain in a “Batman” film.

Jessica Jelliffe captures the pain of Grendel’s mother as she’s watching her child die, but her vocals were somewhat blown away by the band during what seemed meant to be her big number. Lisa Clair’s transition from “hot librarian” Academic 3 into the fearsome Dragon adds some much-needed heat and sultry fun to the show.

Though the performance is supposed to transport us into a German mead hall, Club Oberon just feels like Club Oberon, complete with the Donkey Show’s disco ball. They have, however, added mead to the menu.

Ultimately, despite the most valiant efforts of all, this tale of “ultra-male violence” with dark, easy-to-reinterpret lines like “it is better to retaliate than to mourn” ends up feeling misplaced. It was just the wrong place and the wrong time.

Only time will tell: give the play a shot!

If you go

“Beowulf – A Thousand Years of Baggage”
Through May 5
Club Oberon
2 Arrow St., Cambridge
$25-$55
617-547-8300
www.americanrepertorytheater.org


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