Banana Bag and Bodice take Beowulf on an epic journey
PREVIEW One of the most exciting and unusual theatrical events of 2008 came from a small San Franciscospawned, now Brooklyn-based company: the curiously named Banana Bag and Bodice. It almost sounds unexpected, but in fact BBB, which retains close ties to the Bay Area, has been doing shrewd, highly imaginative, often startlingly designed songplays their preferred term with practically no budget for about a decade. Habitués of the San Francisco Fringe Festival, most of the company's work has appeared there in one form or another almost invariably garnering Best of Fringe honors beginning with 1999's debut outing, The Bastard Chronicles, and running through such memorable encounters as the dadaist delight and vegetarian horror show, Sandwich (2004), or the haunted viscera and satirical apocaly-poesis of The Sewers (2007).
Nonetheless, last spring's world premiere of Beowulf: A Thousand Years of Baggage a slick, rousing performance-arty rock operetta-cum-English-lit-seminar that ran at the Ashby Stage in Berkeley raised things to a new level for the company, especially in terms of production values. And thanks to the support of commissioning company Shotgun Players, BBB's well-honed minimalist aesthetic, sardonic humor, enveloping musical designs, and performance rigor all proved more than capable of expanding to fill the bigger space and budget. It's otherwise impossible and still somewhat awesome to imagine a BBB performance being mounted at a top-of-the-line venue like the Berkeley Rep. But that's just where Beowulf will be reprised Jan. 8, expanding to fill the Rep's cavernous Roda stage, in a single benefit performance ahead of the show's New York City premiere in April at the Henry Street Settlement's Abrons Arts Center. A sign of things to come.
Since co-founding Banana Bag and Bodice in 1999, writer-actor Jason Craig and actor Jessica Jelliffe have led the extremely resourceful, highly collaborative ensemble which includes stalwarts composer-actor Dave Malloy and actor-director Rod Hipskind in far-flung productions that regularly straddle NYC, SF, and Craig's hometown of Dublin, Ireland. While dazzling audiences with works as conceptually unconventional as they are hilariously clever, behind the scenes they take a tough-minded and committed approach that serves them well in the lean and unforgiving environment of NYC's alternative theater scene, and the group's recent productions there have gained enthusiastic audiences and reviews as well as plenty of street cred with their peers.
Meanwhile, nurturing longstanding ties to the Bay Area has helped ensure a consistent output as well as momentum. When Shotgun's artistic director Patrick Dooley held out the offer of a commission for an opera, Craig says they took the plunge without hesitation, telling him they'd like to do something with Beowulf. The idea apparently came more or less out of a hat. "I didn't read it until Shotgun agreed to do it," he confesses alongside Jeliffe and Malloy at Craig and Jeliffe's comfortable roost in a warehouse in Brooklyn's Bushwick neighborhood. "It's just really not my cup of tea. Honor and machismo." But Dooley immediately agreed, providing BBB with what was, for them, unprecedented support.
Malloy as composer, musical director, and actor in the role of King Hrothgar reveled in the creative possibilities: "To be able to have an eight-piece orchestra I've never been able to have that before, and it's so rich and rewarding." For the NYC production he's even adding two more musicians. "I've been rewriting all the music, making it thicker and denser," he says. "It's just a real treat, because I'm so used to doing black box theater where it's like, 'oh, this actor plays violin great.'<0x2009>"
Craig's script, meanwhile, ended up brilliantly channeling his reluctance and skepticism toward the epic poem itself, turning his own discovery and questioning of the text into a set of theatrical subjects and productive dichotomies: a panel of seemingly empty academic experts two of whom, including Jelliffe, double as Beowulf's monster adversaries and the titular hero, played by Craig, as an unlikely he-man gone slightly to seed, in addition to a showdown with monsters who are also a mother and son, and the sly morphing of Beowulf's medieval warrior mythos with its 21st-century rock-god counterpart. The latter concept was already honed in BBB's 2007 show, The Fall and Rise of the Rising Fallen, which birthed a mock-legendary band with a life beyond the play. The results have shown BBB playing at the top of their game.
"It's working with Shotgun that's ramped up everything," confirms Jelliffe. "Not that we have to match that every time, but it has upped the ante, definitely. Usually we make whatever we can with whatever we can. With The Sewers, we made this incredible $20,000 set with no money because of the resources we are able to draw from in New York.
"We still do that, and will continue to do that," she continues. "But with Shotgun, I mean, having a budget?" It's a modest one to be sure, but for now, without a doubt, as Craig says, "It's cool."
BEOWULF: A THOUSAND YEARS OF BAGGAGE
Thurs/8, 8 p.m., $30
2025 Addison, Berk.