Probably somewhere in our school years, many of us encountered the epic English poem "Beowulf." We may even have had to tackle it in formidable Old English.
Put any of these taxing memories aside. At its core, "Beowulf" is the archetypal adventure story, a primal saga of a hero who sets out to confront and conquer the evil in his world. Meat & Potato Theatre’s Tobin Atkinson and Marynell Hinton have reworked and updated the tale, giving it an exciting and inventive production at the Rose Wagner Performing Arts Center.
Meat & Potato Theatre cleverly updates the classic story of a hero combatting powerful dark forces to restore order to a troubled world.
When » Reviewed on May 23; Thursdays, Fridays, and Saturdays at 8 p.m., and Sundays at 2 p.m. through June 8.
Where » Studio Theatre at the Rose Wagner Performing Arts Center, 138 W. Broadway, Salt Lake City.
Running time » Two hours and 15 minutes (including an intermission)
The basic elements of the story remain: When Heorot, the royal mead hall of Danish King Hrothgar, is besieged by the bloodthirsty monster Grendel, the king searches for "the bravest man alive" to slay the beast. The challenge intensifies when Grendel’s mother, who is even fiercer, gets involved. And finally, Beowulf has to contend with a fire-breathing dragon.
Atkinson and Hinton have compressed the story, while adding and altering a number of the characters. Instead of a dashing young warrior, Beowulf is an older man who has settled into the prosperous life of a merchant and must be talked into his heroic task.
"The man you seek — that Beowulf — is dead," he tells Connif, the king’s emissary. And the bravest fighter in Hrothgar’s kingdom, whom he chooses to help him, is Wiglaf, a young woman. Beowulf becomes her mentor, which gives the story an interesting new slant.
In Beowulf’s past is an incident that sounds eerily like 9/11, and the second act acquires a cinematic feel when Beowulf and Wiglaf go on parallel quests and the action cross-cuts between them. A conniving Lady Macbeth–style queen and her sniveling son add more layers to the plot, and — as with any Meat & Potato production — there are puppets.
The result is Old English epic with Shakespearean overtones and a dash of Tolkien. It’s fun to speculate where in Atkinson and Hinton’s imaginations the pieces come from.
Josh Thoemke’s Hrothgar is rock steady as he contends with his kingdom falling apart and the nagging of his shrewish wife, Wealhtheow, a role Rebecca Marcotte revels in. Steven Robert Jones is alternately whining and treacherous as Unferth, the prince, and Alexa McPherson’s Freida is loyal and touching. William Richardson endows Freywaru, the seer, with impressive voice and presence.
The rest of the ensemble cast — Connor Padilla, Conor Thompson and Jake Trumbo — are strong in multiple roles, and everyone gets involved in manning the puppets. But at the heart of the production are Atkinson’s world-weary, sardonic Beowulf and Anne Louise Brings’ fiery, impulsive Wiglaf, who make an intriguing combination.
Director Jeffrey Ingman efficiently orchestrates tension and movement in the Studio Theatre’s confined space. Ruth Weisman’s giant wooden platform set exudes a foreboding air under Megan Crivello’s dramatic lighting, but it seems unnecessary to keep turning the set around. K.L. Alberts’ period costumes are heavy and rich, and an intricate sound design drives and enriches the story, as is characteristic of Meat & Potato productions.
Meat & Potato only performs once a year, but the company’s productions are always unique and theatrical. As Beowulf says here, "the only constant is surprise."
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