Chicago Classical Review » » Third Eye Theater offers a powerful modern revamp of “Beowulf”
If you are unaware of your age-old Anglo-Saxon epic poetry, fear not. Enjoying Third Eye Theater Ensemble’s presentation of Beowulf does not require familiarity with the famous original work.
The opera is less a reinvention of history than a variation on its themes. In the opera, composer and librettist Han Lash transforms Grendel and the dragon into psychological monsters. Here, the character of Beowulf is a different kind of hero – not a warrior and a king, but a veteran military doctor who struggles with post-traumatic stress disorder while caring for his mother.
Beowulf isn’t the only character to face demons. Her mother, who suffers from dementia, resists being in the care home and accuses her nurse of abuse, while the nurse faces a hurt reputation after Beowulf removes her from the facility. As Beowulf tends to his mother at home and begs him to help her end her life with dignity, his past traumas seep into his present, as he hallucinates about a young girl he couldn’t save during the war.
The Edge Off Broadway, a small black box theater in Andersonville, was an appropriate intimate space for this chamber opera, scored for three singers, clarinet, saxophone, percussion and violin. Accommodating just 45 chairs on three sides of the theater, the space initially seemed claustrophobic, but the opera soon proved to be well suited to this type of venue. The extreme closeness to the stage allowed for intimate singing as well as subtle acting that intensified the emotions of the story.
The audience’s closeness to both the action and the orchestra made the dramatic moments particularly harrowing, like the thunderous claps of the percussion during Beowulf’s flashbacks to the war and the tumultuous music as the mother rips out her IV. But the intimate ending where Beowulf shows mercy to his mother and helps her die was tender and heartbreaking. Performing this opera obviously requires a great deal of vulnerability and emotional energy, and for that, Friday Night’s cast and director, Rose Freeman, are to be commended.
As Beowulf, baritone Noah Gartner proved a captivating presence both vocally and dramatically as he paced his room in the opening scene, trying to make sure he was home and not back in the war. Possessing a lovely lyrical baritone voice, Gartner gave the intimate vocal lines a lieder quality, while the showdown scene with the nurse at the end brought out a gripping yet balanced fortissimo.
Soprano Mary Lutz Govertsen was very compelling as a mother with dementia. His subtle facial expressions and vocal coloring helped convey his character’s confusion, anxiety, and love for his son. With excellent diction and dramatic intent, she was able to turn the often haphazard vocal lines into meaningful text.
Tenor Vincent McPherson rounded out the cast as a well-meaning but maligned nurse. Although he only had a few short vocal appearances, he demonstrated a powerful climax in his duet with Beowulf at the end.
This opera could have been a spoken piece. Lash’s music was almost incidental, serving to heighten emotions on stage and provide atmosphere and sound effects. Much of the music was quite sparse, with sustained sounds from the winds and violin while the vibraphone cut in with short flourishes of notes. The vocal lines were also quite rambling and unrelated to the instrumental accompaniment.
Thus, moments of musical beauty or consistency between singers and instrumentalists were rare. One such moment, however, was a duet between Beowulf and his mother when they sang a canon lullaby together. Govertsen shone brightest here, bending his rugged voice into silvery high pianissimo notes.
Conductor Alexandra Enyart led the musicians with confidence and poise, her fluency and clarity helping to keep it all together. This proved a challenge with the conductor and instrumentalists placed behind the stage, which meant the singers often had to watch Enyart from monitors in the corners of the venue. This allowed for flexibility in staging but was also quite noticeable as the singers fixed their gazes on the screens during difficult entrances.
Among the instrumentalists, percussionist James Yakas particularly impressed when he launched virtuoso bursts of notes on the vibraphone in a very dark theater. Saxophonist Richard Brasseale, violinist Ash Fitzwater and clarinetist Cally Laughlin provided solid foundations for the rest of the orchestra.
The small space was used thoughtfully by set designer Sam Stephen and lighting designer David Goodman-Edberg. To separate the stage from the audience, debris lined the perimeter of the stage, while remnants of light fixtures, furniture, medical gauze and other items hung from the ceiling like shrapnel immediately after an explosion.
Although Lash’s bland music left a minimal impression, Beowulf is a powerful, intensely animated play by the Third Eye Theater Ensemble. You might want to bring a pack of tissues for this emotionally gripping job.
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