By Elizabeth Maupin
Elizabeth Maupin on Theater
Forget Spider-Man; forget Indiana Jones. The most impressive action hero may have been Beowulf, the king of the Geats, who fought monsters and slew dragons across Scandinavia some 1,500 years ago.
Sure, Odysseus may have had him beat by a millennium or so. But it’s hard to best Beowulf for guts, or for gore – or for Charlie Bethel’s captivating retelling at Orlando Shakespeare Theater of the old, old tale.
Bethel, a Minneapolis-based actor and writer, has been performing his one-man Beowulf for a decade or so, at regional theaters and festivals across the U.S. Small wonder: His writing is powerful, and he performs Beowulf with such force, such precision and such wit that he erases everything but Danes and Geats, fens and moors, monsters and dragons from your mind.
The story is of the ancient chieftain Beowulf, whose Geatish kingdom is not far from that of the Danes. The Danish king Hrothgar and his people have been shaken by the marauding monster Grendel, so valiant Beowulf comes in and vanquishes first Grendel and then his vengeful mother. The hero’s final battle, decades later when he is king of the Geats, is at the hands of a dragon, and the two fight each other to the death.
Maybe this epic poem stymied you in high-school English, or maybe you remember being entranced by the archaic language. (I belonged to the latter camp: I was an English geek.) But there’s nothing archaic about Bethel’s version, which streamlines the story into just under 70 intermissionless minutes and makes every single word count.
“Listen up,” he begins, and what follows is a story told simply, in clear, modern language that can be startlingly beautiful. The king Hrothgar is “glad for Beowulf’s bold strength of arm and soul,” Bethel says, and the monster Grendel’s body becomes “a splay of guts.”
Bethel articulates each word – he’s speaking poetry, after all – and, although dressed in modern shirt and jeans, he creates each character with a lift of a shoulder or a quaver in his tone. He turns into Grendel merely by raising his right elbow, but the effect (helped by Mary Heffernan’s dramatic lighting) is utterly believable; he becomes the death mask of a slain warrior, Aeschere, simply by screwing up his face. Beowulf stands proudly, chest puffed out, his foot upon a bench; this is a man who knows he can do what needs to be done.
Bethel himself doesn’t look like an action hero, but his precise movements and amused, understated manner carry him far. The moral of this story goes down easily – “For God’s sake, folks, enjoy yourselves in life,” he says, because death comes all too quickly – and certainly it’s Bethel’s plainspokenness that makes you lean forward to catch and cradle every word.
At the first Orlando Shakes performance, Wednesday night, an audience of students and elderly theatergoers turned absolutely silent when Beowulf breathed his end. Don’t think we all believed in dragons. We were simply in the hands of a storyteller who knows his stuff.
- What: Orlando Shakespeare Theater production of Charlie Bethel one-man show.
- Where: Mandell Studio Theater, Lowndes Shakespeare Center, 812 E. Rollins St., Orlando.
- When: 7:30 p.m. Wednesdays-Saturdays, 1 p.m. Sundays, through March 20.
- Running time: One hour 10 minutes.
- Cost: $15 and $20.
- Call: 407-447-1700 Ext.1.
- Online: orlandoshakes.org.