Tuesday, July 18, 2006

Grendel from the Fourth Ring

We took off toward Poughkeepsie on a hot Thursday morning that would prove to be the start of an exceedingly warm day. It was a pleasant enough drive down to the city on the Hudson, but we hadn't anticipated the difficulty in getting parking at the train station. The rather gruff and peremptory woman at the garage told us to just wait right there at the entrance for the next train to arrive and issue forth passengers. Sure enough -- ten minutes and a little kinder conversation later -- some people got off the train and we got a parking space. The ride down on Metro North was a pleasant trip along the Hudson, especially on such a pretty day. The car filled gradually with people getting on and off along the way, I read a little Mrs. Oliphant, and it hardly seemed any time before we were dropped off in the stifling tracks of Grand Central.

Despite our hopes, there was no dancing, so we got our new Metro cards ($4 bonus!) and headed down to the Strand. When we got to Union Square, however, we decided to cool off in the Virgin store (always a good source of heavy air conditioning). Cooled sufficiently, we walked the rest of the way to the Strand -- ah! 18 miles of books! Even bigger than before, but we managed to keep ourselves in check, buying only two books each. After that, it was on to Indian restaurant row (6th street) and a tasty dinner with live music. Then it was back on the subway to Lincoln Center.

When we came to the plaza, we were surprised to find it full of people swing dancing, but anything can happen in Manhattan. After the stifling heat of the subway, it felt good to get to the New York State Theater and get our tickets on the way up to the fourth ring. The place was packed -- there were only four performances and this was the second. Many people in the audience had copies of John Gardner's Grendel with them it turned out. It was a long way down to the stage from the fourth ring, but we could see the whole place.

The orchestra was large and the music proved to be deep and sonorous with a lot of percussive pulses and discordant changes. When at last the lights went down you could feel the anticipation as it started. The stage opened to reveal the much-talked about wall, the lights and music riveting everyone's eyes on it as the middle panel slowly opened to a plateau and out came the mechanized goat puppet to whom Grendel sings his first monologue. As the monster laments the pointless routine of his life and gradually his three shadows creep forth, the only other voices in his lonely life.

The costumes were amazing and the settings ingenious, particularly the use of the projections to do the otherwise impossible, like building the meadhall from plans to reality. Bass Eric Owens had a monumental task in singing the monster's role, onstage from beginning to end almost all the time and usually singing. The breadth of emotions from the loner's anger to the exquisite joy of first love had to balance perfectly with the bitter humor and vulgar hate. Much of the speeches came directly from the novel (I've taught it a couple of times recently).

Other highlights included, of course, Taymor's trademark puppets and otherworldly characters. The forlorn creatures especially were amazing -- Grendel's mother and the other kin in the cave -- mute but not inexpressive, impossibly shaped, one like a tree, another almost like a centaur, all misshapen and yet pitiable in their wretchedness. A big crowd pleaser was the Dragon, first glimpsed “at a distance” -- that is, as a small (15 foot) golden serpent puppet -- then as the giant creature who frightens Grendel, telling him that's how the humans feel when they see him. It wasn't possible to have the dragon convey the existential bleakness of the novel, but mezzo-soprano Denyce Graves (and the back-up trio in the dragon's tail) gave the dragon a knowingly humorous superiority that had folks laughing out loud (and as Gene pointed out, the giant dragon head was more than a tad Nemo-esque). All the cast were superb, but Graves really wowed the audience.

Jay Hunter Morris as the would-be hero Unferth was also effective even as he was being beaten down and ridiculed by the taunting Grendel. Coloratura Laura Claycomb brought a regal beauty to the role of the queen Wealtheow who must enchant the imagination of both Hrothgar and Grendel. The scene was set up perfectly -- the heavily clothed and stately queen attended by the more revealingly clad women. They convey the sexuality of the scene while Wealtheow maintains a more remote air, despite the fact that she is there to represent the enticements of the flesh to which Grendel nearly succumbs -- until he realizes that she will never want him as he wants her. Taymor does a lot with the staging choices to address the lack of women in the narrative, making women part of the scene even if they are not part of the master narrative (much like the Anglo-Saxon source).

The attacks by Grendel also provided amazing staging opportunities. The very first -- just after the dragon charms him with invulnerability -- includes a giant Grendel puppet, strobes, and suspended warriors, and quite literally took my breath away. I have never seen anything quite as astonishing on stage. I wanted spectacle and we certainly got it. More than that though, the opera captured much of the humor and tragedy and at least a good bit of the philosophy embedded in the original narrative. It was well worth it! The only aspect I found a bit off-putting was Beowulf. In the novel he is a cold, mechanistic and frightening angel of death who speaks his thoughts into the head of Grendel. On stage, he was a manic dancer played by Desmond Richardson, who is so fit as to look like a model of the body's muscle system (although the tribal-like tattooing looked good). The frenzied dancing of the hero seemed too much at odds with the story. Grendel gets his own dance of victory early on, which Owens infused with capering delight -- but the transition to his death song could have been better constructed. It moves too quickly from his glib rejoinders to his growing sense of panic and his final realizations.

But it's a quibble really. It was a wonderful experience that I hope! has not ended with the four nights in NYC. I know I'd buy a DVD in a heartbeat. It’s good to be near the city so we can take advantage of once-in-a-life-time opportunities like this. Hurrah!

It was a late night, but we managed to catch the 11.20 train back to Poughkeepsie -- and unlike the two gals behind us, we didn't chatter so much that we missed our stop. There was a bit of fog on the drive back home, but it's an easy trip on the Thruway and we got home to our boxes and Kipper and slept late the next morning. Now I'll finally read the NYTimes review of the show and see what they thought.

4 comments:

Cranky Yankee said...

With all this talk of Grendel the Opera, all I can think of is the animated film made back in the 70s with Peter Ustinov as Grendel.

Does anybody remember that?

Does anyone want to?

Don't hit me for mentioning it...

K. A. Laity said...

I've never seen it -- only heard of it. I'd gladly see it no matter how silly it might be. After all, I actually own Christopher Lambert's Beowulf 2000 and I have even scarred students with small portions of it!

K. A. Laity said...

Here's a link to the NYTimes review of Benjamin Bagby's performance of "Beowulf" which I've seen a couple of times before. The reviewer seems fairly ignorant of both the poem and its language ("guterral" and "incomprehensible"?) but still praises the performance.

K. A. Laity said...

Here's a link to the Theater Communications Group story on the preparations for presenting Grendel, if you're interested in the back story.