There are two sides to every story—every conflict, every bit of gossip, and even the seemingly straightforward story of Beowulf. In Renegade Theatre Company’s production, Beowulf/Grendel, you get a glimpse into multiple stories, multiple points of view.
One tale is told by actors who divide the audience and take them on two different journeys. Another is that of an old cemetery covered in large sections by overgrown brush and thicket. Time has not been kind to this place.
As I walked up to the Mount Moriah Cemetery in West Philadelphia, I had no idea what I was in for. A roaming production is a concept that is rarely undertaken and, I think, even more rarely successful. With so many potential difficulties, such as timing, sound quality, and weather, it is no surprise that a staged play is a more common choice.
However, the decision to set Beowulf/Grendel—written as a collaborative effort by Maura Krause and the performers (Ainyé AnnaDora, Nia Benjamin, and Merri Rashoyan)—in an overgrown burial ground ended up adding a level of depth to the production that could not have been achieved on stage. The unusual setting allowed for an experience of the play that ended up being shockingly personal.
The play began with all three actors, three young women, chanting in Old English. Their melancholic and rhythmic speech sent chills down my spine and set the tone for the entire production. “Is anybody keeping score?” Rashoyan asks. With this line, the tone was set.
Then the audience divided into two randomly selected groups following one of two actors, either AnnaDora or Benjamin. Both are lively in their performance, putting their entire bodies into their strange roles. At times, the actor is Beowulf, conflicted hero and warrior. At other times, the actor is Grendel, misunderstood and reflective monster, unsure of how and why things happen the way they happen.
The third actor, Rashoyan, shows up occasionally to play different characters that interrupt Beowulf’s monologues and help people learn more about the person/monster they are following. Rashoyan does a fantastic job of playing each role as a separate, meaningful part.
While the actor I followed, Benjamin, captivated me with both her poetic speeches and very bizarre and fascinating motions, I often found myself lost with regards to the topic of her speech, which character she had slipped into, and where the story was headed from there. At first, this was distressing, but over time, the specifics became less important to me. My consciousness at times followed her speech, at other times wandered around the graves and in the end, I found the themes and the setting wove themselves beautifully together in a way that resonated with me long after I exited the sprawling cemetery.
As I watched the torment that both Beowulf and Grendel went through leading up to their battle, I could not help but feel compassion and understanding for each side present in this and every story. Throughout the entire play, actors weave in conversations about legacy. The tales told after people die are selected by those who may or may not know the full story. As the production moved through the cemetery, this theme became particularly poignant. Death took on greater significance and legacy suddenly felt vital
There is a simultaneously unsettling and yet serene and thoughtful nature to this remarkable production that left me thinking. Though the story, stage direction, and cemetery factor into the show in major ways, costumes and additional props were very minimal, and seemed to have largely symbolic purposes, as opposed to adding to characterization or plot. With no lighting and no added sound effects, the simplicity of the production allowed the complexity of the cemetery to take over in meaningful ways.
After the production, the creative team invited audience members to drink a cup of tea, reflect, and come together in their experience—a lovely ending to an unusual and thoughtful experience. Just be sure to check yourself for ticks afterwards. I came home with a few new bug buddies.
Beowulf/Grendel is not an average show, meant to be taken in as you would a staged play. Lean into the experience and create your own story, wandering amongst forgotten graves and overgrown paths.
Guest reviewer Emily Kluver is a recent graduate in education and psychology from Swarthmore College. She aims to take the world by storm with the written word. When she is not writing and editing articles, she is often found holed up in some corner, attempting to write the Great American Novel.