The title doesn’t apply in the slightest, but it’s no surprise that Irish Repertory Theater’s new staging of “Beowulf” is getting billed as a “rock opera.” For marketing purposes, that’s a quick way of saying this adaptation of the epic poem gets sung through by a group of leather-clad men accompanied by live instruments. But really, an onstage harp and harmonium don’t scream rock and roll. They form the basis of something much more complicated: a lush, ritualistic staging of a Western myth that’s too aware of timeless themes to ever rely on disposable gimmicks.
Simply put, this is a glorious piece of musical theater. With music and lyrics by “Saturday Night Live” music director Lenny Pickett and additional lyrics by Lindsey Turner, it chucks every tired convention of contempo tuners and reaches instead to traditions like African puppetry and Japanese Noh drama.
The choice makes sense. Those types of theater are more like religious ceremonies, built on myths that everyone knows. And one of their goals — through letting us, say, see puppeteers at work– is to entrance the audience by making the act of storytelling as central as the story itself.
For English speakers, there’s no older story than “Beowulf.” Even auds that don’t know the poem will recognize the archetypal journey of a great hero who battles various monsters, becomes king, then passes his crown to the next young man. The scribes and director Charlotte Moore embrace this familiarity, never pretending they’re telling a suspenseful hero tale. Instead, they turn their show into a ritual act.
Pickett’s music sets the mythic tone. Artistic highs come when the ensemble sings together in choral odes, their sumptuous harmonies ruminating on massive themes of good and evil. For percussion, Moore has them accompany offstage drums with stomping feet or by banging the sheet metal hung on the wall. These moments have a raw, elemental sound, and the soaring music makes them feel larger than any single story.
This power carries to the solos and duets, staged like traditional scenes to move the plot forward. As Beowulf, Richard Barth belts stirring solos, his solid tenor and earnest expression lending weight to lines like “My song will live forever.” To contrast such valor, Bill Gross sings with crack-voiced rage as the mother of Grendel (Jay Lusteck), a beast destroyed by the hero.
There’s a primal shock in the way Grendel appears. Puppet maker Bob Flanagan has designed him, as well as the dragon that Beowulf eventually slays, with an obvious understanding of how to suggest horror in a live performance. In a style that recalls Julie Taymor’s work, each beast is essentially a large headpiece that sits on an actor’s shoulders, its flashing eyes and snarling mouth resting just above the thesp’s head. We always see the actors, who also work sticks holding oversized claws, but this makes it easier to pretend they aren’t there. The illusion works by displaying its machinery and forcing our imaginations to fill in the gaps.
These clever effects — along with Brian Nason’s shadowy lighting — lift “Beowulf” into a visceral realm. Randall Klein’s costumes eroticize the mood, exposing skin with the ripped-leather style of a “Mad Max” apocalypse. In context, though, the outfits work, adding flesh to the earthy aesthetic. They’re the most modern thing about this staging, but they only enhance its ability to tap into a legend.