In Play Reviews

In playwright Eve Johnstone‘s retelling of the old English poem Beowulf, Fire and Meat, the monster Grendel is the main character, and the hero’s journey is hers to tell. The new play, presented by Rutabaga Story Co., is now onstage at the Headwaters Theatre.

Directed by Eve Johnstone, the play opens as two men–Georg (Danny Gray) and Tolf (Lance Woolen)– walk into a cave to get out of the cold. They are not there for long, as the cave is occupied by Mama (Danny Gray), the ailing mother of Grendel (Claire Aldridge). Grendel soon returns with Mama’s dinner.

Sawyer Shipman and Claire Aldridge in Fire and Meat. Photo by David Kinder.

And then, another man wanders into the cave. A young Dane called Unferth (Sawyer Shipman). Initially alarmed, Grendel can’t decide whether or not Unferth would be a good meal for Mama. Her curiosity wins the day, and she and Unferth begin a tentative conversation. When she brings her a dead sheep the next day, she befriends him.

For Grendel, taking care of Mama is a lonely business. It’s nice to have someone to visit with who isn’t sick or demanding. But when Grendel learns a secret about her past, it changes everything!

To write this fascinating portrayal of Grendel, the playwright borrowed from the 1971 John Gardner novel Grendel–a tale about what happened to Grendel before Beowulf ripped off [his] arm–and turned it into a fresh, new, visual, and at times funny story.

Perhaps the most fascinating character in the play is Mama, a giant puppet created and voiced by Danny Gray and operated by Lance Woolen. A terrifying spectacle, she occupies half the stage, breathing, moving, snapping, moaning, and demanding food. (Stand back, Audrey!)

Claire Aldridge is Grendel in Fire and Meat. Photo by David Kinder.

For the character Grendel, Claire Aldridge becomes an acrobat, zipping around on four feet, and sometimes two, wielding a sword and feeding haunches of flesh to her mother. She manages to be at once fearsome and sympathetic. The audience can delight in Grendel’s femininity, but is never allowed to forget that she is foremost a monster.

I would say this is a family show–but only for kids 10 and over. The monster is wonderful for adults, but could give the little ones nightmares.

A small crew has put together a fine show. In addition to those listed above, thanks to Madison Mondeaux, stage manager; Garret Brown, sound designer; Kevin Young, lighting designer; and Alanna Archibald, costume assistant to Danny Gray.

Five performances remain for Fire and Meat: Saturday May 11, 7:30 p.m.; Sunday May 12, 2 p.m.; Thursday May 16, 7:30 p.m.; Friday May 17, 7:30 p.m.; Saturday May 18, 7:30 p.m. Headwaters Theatre is located at 55 NE Farragut, Portland



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