Our seats just happened to be on opening night, thanks to the last-minute computer glitches and rescheduling, so JW and I went to see the big world premiere of the Julie Taymor/Elliot Goldenthal behemoth tonight.
I have gone from excited to scared to doomsday about this production, and that was before I sat down in my seats. Hearing about all the problems and hearing no consensus whatsoever from those who saw it in previews, I just tried to be hopeful yet realistic. When it was all over I was mostly just frustrated.
There is so much skill involved here. There are gorgeous moments throughout, as one would expect, I assume, from Julie Taymor. My only familiarity with her work is through the movie Titus which, if memory serves, is high camp as much as anything.... But Grendel's supposed to be the real thing, right?
Well, yes and no. One of the main conceits of the show is that we are viewing the world through the lens of a monster, as he is our narrator. And yet, the world he comes from is so beyond grotesque it's just a plain eyesore. His mother is represented as this massive tree-puppet with pendulous breasts, along with two or three other unidentified tree-people puppets (seriously, who the hell were those guys?), and their scenes are such an assault on the senses I was always a bit relieved when the long-haired maidens came on to dance again. Is self-hatred what all this hideousness is about? Envy? Perhaps...but god, those puppets were ugly. I wondered what would've happened if the lens were focused a bit differently; if there was something odd-looking about the villagers, and Grendel's folks looked less cretinous. Would we have identified differently? Or at all?
Oh, but the world of the Grendel isn't supposed to be pretty, you say. I know, I know, and I told myself that constantly, whenever I'd have a moment of doubt about what was going on onstage...at least during the first act. During the first act I was on the verge of being won over. Eric Owens is a marvelous singer and he's got one of the hardest, biggest roles he will probably ever sing here. He does a splendid job. He's quite persuasive. And the first act is full of other persuasive moments as well. The choreography is most engaging here, and there are countless visual spectacles that dazzle...full of projections and sharp lighting and just plain old-fashioned great staging. Even the silly dragon scene with Denyce Graves got a chuckle out of me. Although by the time it was over I wasn't convinced she was diva enough for that role. Or singer enough.
JW suggested it was the music's fault, not hers. He's the expert there. I was never overwhelmed by the music, although I did enjoy passages. The writing for Grendel and his Shadows tended to make me prick up my ears the most. Goldenthal complemented Owens by giving him a bit of a chorus with a small group of "Shadows", who served as his dark side, his subconscious, his romantic self, etc. It's a conceit with a lot of potential -- potential I felt was unfulfilled....
But we'll get to that in a minute. I'm getting ahead of myself. So Act I ended and JW and I rushed for our ritual Diet Pepsis and brownie (we split one -- we're disciplined that way), and I could tell he was not happy. I was surprisingly feeling good about the whole experience. I had my misgivings, but there was enough razzle-dazzle and just the right suggestion of substance to make me think this might not be so bad after all. I told him it felt big, weighty, and ambitious -- and it did.
And then Act II started. It started with this clumsy, flat-footed comic scene that broke the narrative convention the show established. And Grendel acknowledged this break with a laugh line. That got laughs. But it wasn't funny. It was just confusing. Oh, well, actually, it was funny, but only because Grendel used the phrase "shit-ass" and the phrase "shit-ass" is funny, right? Of course it is; I just typed it twice and I'll bet you giggled, or at least smiled, both times you read it. But let me explain to you what happened in this scene. Grendel, our narrator, who has spent the whole show being the only person speaking/singing in modern English, plays a scene with a warrior who vows to fight him. The warrior is suddenly, inexplicably, also speaking in modern English. This is after we've spent the entire first act being told that NO ONE BUT GRENDEL speaks in modern English. Then, to explain it all, Grendel says "this shit-ass scene was his idea." WHAT??? DID YOU HAVE A CONVERSATION WITH HIM BEFORE IT STARTED? IF SO, WHY??? AND SINCE WHEN IS ACKNOWLEDGING THIS IS A PIECE OF THEATER A PART OF THIS SHOW? OKAY, FINE, SO THERE WAS THAT ONE LINE DENYCE GRAVES HAD IN ACT ONE BUT THAT WAS AN OBLIQUE REFERENCE AT BEST. YOU CAN'T DO THIS!! YOU CAN'T! AND THIS SCENE ISN'T FUNNY. NO MATTER HOW MANY PIECES OF FRUIT YOU THROW. IT'S NOT FUNNY. GO AHEAD! DO THAT LITTLE DANCE TO GET A FEW MORE EASY LAUGHS, BUT IT'S NOT FUNNY.
Okay, enough with the caps lock. Anyway, as you can tell, this is when it all started to go downhill for me. After that, I just remember a passage of Grendel's singing involving his repetition of the phrase "Something's Coming." And I'm sorry, but you just don't have a singer in a show sing that phrase unless it's followed by the words "come on in, don't be shy, meet a guy, pull up a chair!"
And then here comes Beowulf, finally, to save the day. WHY IS HE EGYPTIAN? AND WHY HAS HE BROUGHT AN ARMY OF EGYPTIAN SOLDIERS WITH HIM? THEY ARE IN ENGLAND (OR IS IT DENMARK? THANKS FOR THE BEOWULF RESEARCH, JW). WHY ARE THEY IN GLINTY BRONZE ARMOR AND BODY PAINT AND OBVIOUSLY INTENDED TO LOOK EGYPTIAN??
Sorry about the caps lock again. I promise I'll stop. Now, I meant to get back to the unfulfilled potential of the splitting of Grendel's voices, but I don't know what to say except that it was inconsistently applied and a wasted opportunity. Goldenthal doesn't really activate the voices to suggest any sort of internal conflict until late in the second act, and even then he doesn't do it strongly enough for it to matter. So as is they're neither entirely "shadows" nor developed, effective representations of a fragmented personality, which he seems to want to turn them into.
And then there's the big climax, with the chorus singing this big heavy poetic text that sounds like it wants to be in John Adams' El Nino (and God, did JW and I ever want to be in El Nino by then too). Except the whole time they were singing something like "the windy hill will fall" and I was wanting so badly to like the moment but I couldn't help thinking "how in the world is a hill windy?" (NOTE: see comments for more info here, but JW has said that if Chicago can be the Windy City, then Grendel's hill can be windy too; I never said I was the smart one in our relationship). Still, how do hills fall, exactly? Nit-picking aside, my point is that I just don't think this text is as weighty or rich as Taymor and J.D. McClatchy (her co-librettist) do.
It just felt like a mess to me. A big, inspired, beautifully performed, occasionally brilliant, definitely eye-catching, sprawling, frustrating mess. And Laura Claycomb sounded positively heavenly in her small role. Just wanted to get that in there.