Beowulf- A Purge Has Taken Place
Watching Charlie Bethel perform his self-adapted Beowulf on Friday night, one thought kept occurring to me over and over: Boy, this is really the right time of year for this. That seems kind of strange, I guess. Most theaters ’round town are putting up their gliz’n’glams, their annual Christmas peppermint schmaltzfests, not booking one person shows based on ancient Old English heroic poetry. But when you think about it, it makes perfect sense. And I think about it. Blinking lights, repetitive jangling sing-songs, gigantic idolish inflatable snowmen, and of course (shudder) tinsel – it all seems kind of…desperate, doesn’t it? Really, we’re just screaming into the dark with all of this, hanging onto each other tightly and trying not go crazy in the face of the longest night. Put the Elf on the damned Shelf, pass the Tylenol and try not to lose it. Because what we know, what we have always known, is that there are monsters in the dark. Monsters that will wither your crops, freeze your well and murder your children. I walked in and I was struck by how dark the stage was, how simple. A chair (Hey, I know that chair! It’s an Ikea STEFAN. Good old STEFAN. So like me. Cheap, flexible and too often used on the stage.) a table, a glass of water. Cave-like, cavernous. Suggestive of something, you know, out there. And when the spot hits Bethel, he’s just a guy in a red fleece and a worn pair of brown shoes. But then, oh, then, he starts talking. And they hit you, the words that your ears just seem to want to hold: “the night begun”, “blood demon” “restless evil thirst”. Bethel is a storyteller. Not a storyteller like the nice lady at the library sometimes; a storyteller like the kind elected in the cave when we’re waiting to see if the light is coming back. Like the kind that might be spinning for his life. And when he’s spinning the story of Beowulf, the mighty hero, the warrior from over the sea who killed the monster WITH HIS HANDS, TWICE, we listen and we hold our breath. He’s got urgency, he’s got rhythm, he’s got a voice like a priest. The program notes said he’s been rehearsing this damned thing for seven fucking years and I believe it. It’s got beautiful restraint, avoiding that show-offy thing that solo performers project when they try too hard to “do voices” like my mom reading a bedtime story. “I’m an ACtor, look at me and my craaaaaft”. Just tell.the.damned.story. Bethel less transforms than he conjures – he conjures up Beowulf striding off the ship and Grendel (the monster) breathing and old king Hroogar showering the conquerors with riches and sometimes he conjures a bench or a sail or a dragon but he’s always there, he’s always the storyteller. The forms come like shadows out of his hands and eyes and mouth and, like a sorcerer, he makes us believe them. It really is an old magic, this. And, like all good stories, this one has a message, one apt for the brutal society it was formed for and in: it’s better to die with a dragon’s tooth poison burning a hole in your chest than to shuffle off to Buffalo shitting yourself in a chair in front of Fox News.
Bottom line: The night is long, the night is cold and here is a story VERY well told. Solo shows can come off cringingly self-indulgent but that isn’t the case here. Bethel is a pro. Trust him.
Running at Baltimore Theatre Project until December 22nd
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