Banana Bag & Bodice at Les Escales Improbables: In the flesh

In the flesh

New theatre goes way back when in Beowulf-A Thousand Years of Baggage

NYC's Banana Bag & Bodice tell old-world bloody truths at Les Escales Improbables

Labour Day is such a lie. Summer doesn’t end on a dime or a day; it ends when we say it ends, damn it, even if it’s raining. International arts festival Les Escales Improbables, now in its seventh year, knows well the seasonal divide, but plays to its strengths: the high energy that marks September, the excitement of the new and different, and the traditional autumnal violence and vengeance.

Or at least that’s what New York City theatre company Banana Bag & Bodice’s Beowulf-A Thousand Years of Baggage suggests: Humanity isn’t quite over our blood and guts lust, and, in many ways, it’s an integral part of art.

The award-winning theatrical production has evolved over its four years of life in cities as different as Dublin and San Francisco and venues as formal as opera houses and as rowdy as bars – and it’ll be different here in Montreal too. Wherever Banana Bag & Bodice find themselves, and whatever liberties they take with the ninth-century 3,000-line epic poem, they tell the story of Beowulf as it might have been told in a medieval mead hall or around a fire somewhere in Scandinavia.

"A poet would sing a story to you over course of days," says co-artistic director Jessica Jelliffe. "We want to hearken back to that." A series of songs – with full band, dancing back-up singers and soloists that boldly stroll into the audience – tell the central story while spoken interludes address the problem of scholarly overanalysis that has slowly stripped the meat from the story’s bones.

"For so long Beowulf was picked apart by critics and academics as a historical document that could teach about the ‘peoples of old,’ when in fact it was handed down through generations who put their spin on it," says Jelliffe.

Here we’re treated to a version of the real thing that makes sense to our contemporary lives and engages with who we are – a blend of bawdy, bloody, ironic, lusty and honest. "I think that we push the boundaries of what traditional theatre is nowadays," says Jelliffe, adding, "We’re almost more historically theatrical in that we’re very much about the interaction with the audience. If we don’t make a visceral connection with the audience, we’ve failed."

(In the version I saw in New York City last weekend, where Beowulf fought Grendel next to the bar and the monster-mother relationship got disturbingly close, the audience remained fully engaged by the funny, strange and profound performance – I even wanted to re-read the poem!)

As part of Les Escales Improbables’s night programming, Beowulf-A Thousand Years of Baggage is greeted to the Lion d’Or stage on Thursday by Valody au Cabaret, a multi-musician, genre-bending musical extravaganza. Friday night’s festivities at Club Soda strike a different performative punk tone: in Happening DJ, Germany’s always-inventive Chicks on Speed fuse art, video, music, fashion and theatrical flair; Montreal’s kraut-rocky electro artists Organ Mood illuminate their sound with video work in Soyez visibles; and Joëlle Couturier, Manuel Bisson and Yannick Ross make everyday acts take on deeper meaning in Les Étrangers de l’intérieur.

Les Escales’s daytime activities in the Quays of the Old Port also raise the bar with PME-Art’s The DJ who gave too much information (Hospitality 5), Ktha Compagnie’s Est-ce que le monde sait qu’il me parle, Magali Babin’s audio performance La Pêche aux sons, Orchestre d’Hommes-Orchestres, Stereoptik’s drawings set to music, acoustic and video installations, music to nap to, music to move to and more art to keep winter at bay for a little while longer.

Beowulf-A Thousand Years of Baggage
At Lion d’Or (1676 Ontario E.), Sept. 9, 8 p.m.

Chicks on Speed and guests
At Club Soda (1225 St-Laurent), Sept. 10, 8 p.m.

Les Escales Improbables daytime events
At the Quays of the Old Port, Sept. 10-12, 2-7 p.m.

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