Sunday, January 26, 2003

'Beowulf' previews future for Festival

By Jackie Demaline
The Cincinnati Enquirer

You can hear the rain as you enter Cincinnati Shakespeare Festival, and ominous rumbles of thunder.

The stage is piled with debris, and at the center of the junk pile is a television with a smashed screen.

Look more closely at the small mountain range of cardboard boxes and kitchen sinks and you'll see a few things that look suspiciously like festival props from productions long past, which is only proper because one of the points of this new adaptation of Beowulf is letting go.

Beowulf. The word that strikes horror in the hearts and minds of high school students everywhere.

As adapted by Brian Isaac Phillips and Matt Johnson, this Beowulf is a pretty good time, although the script takes a bit too long to make its points.

The central point is that too often the "information" we take in only has a passing acquaintance with fact.

So we are told the tale of mythic warrior Beowulf, the epic poem from A.D. 1000 (or thereabouts). "Famed was this Beowulf: far flew the boast of him, Son of Scyld in the Scandan lands...."

Martyr or mercenary? In this stage version, subtitled Doom of the Just, it depends upon whom you're talking to.

Performed by the five members of the festival's Young Company, the play - scruffy with lots of attitude - is a good showcase for them. Director Jason Bruffy (a Young Company alum) demonstrates a steady hand at lively storytelling.

The play opens with blind Wyglef (Taylore Mahogany Scott) coming on stage, hearing the "information" on the TV that has sound but no picture. Ms. Scott, fresh from The Gimmick, continues to impress in a small supporting role. (She later embodies monster Grendel, wardrobed in various items from the junk pile.)

On either side of the Beowulf debate are Jeffrey Bower, who takes the noble king Hrothgar/humble servant Beowulf route and Ghillian Porter who has an entirely different story to tell.

Whoever controls the remote control controls the telling of the epic, and there are too many instant replays of the action. Jeremy Aggers (presenting bedeviled Hrothgar as wise and sniveling coward by turn) and Reginald Jernigan as Beowulf (noble and not) are put and re-put through their paces.

We get it, we get it.

Ms. Porter makes the strongest showing with a winning personality and the same energy she gave to Juliet in season opener Romeo & Juliet. Mr. Aggers offers an intelligent, watchable performance as well.

The second half of the show is given over to many battles, primarily with Grendel and its vengeful parent.

Our hero faces monsters and the threat of sleeping dragons, and they're ready metaphors for plague and war and other disasters man visits upon himself.

But it's ultimately lack of loyalty, integrity and courage that do him in. How wonderful, that more than 1,000 years ago, humanity was embracing the virtues that we embrace today. And how tragic that we still haven't mastered them.

Beowulf runs through Feb. 2 at Cincinnati Shakespeare Festival, downtown; 381-2273.


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