Saturday, August 13, 2011

Two Planks and a Passion Theater Presents Beowulf

For the past couple of years, I've wanted to see a production at Two Planks and a Passion Theater.   The theater is located in Canning, though, which is over an hour away from Chester, so it hasn't been easy to decide on the spur of the moment to go.  Plus their productions haven't been overly enticing to me.  Last year they put on "The Crucible" (which I've seen on numerous occasions) and the year before it was "Our Town" (again, been there, seen that). This year's production was "Beowulf," which on its face sounded like it would be about as enjoyable as going to the dentist.   Nonetheless, I floated the idea to my gal pals and we decided to make it part of our week-end away.   

You might be wondering why I've been so keen to see a production at Two Planks if the shows haven't sounded that interesting to me.  The reason is simple:  the "theater" is in the great outdoors.   I've been to outdoor theater a couple of times in the past, and I am always amazed--and thrilled--at how creative directors can be at using the surrounding environment as their set.   It  adds something incredibly special to the performance, and this production was no exception.  We arrived a few minutes before the 6:00 curtain and took our seats on the second row of stadium bleachers (quite similar to what you would find in a gym).  There were four sets of bleachers, and the entire "theater" accommodated only about 100 audience members.  Talk about an intimate venue!  We had come prepared with bug spray (which we happily did not need) and blankets (which we did).

The audience silenced as the actors started coming onto the (dirt) stage from the surrounding woods to meet around a fire pit and talk about the ships that were in the harbor gathering their forces for an attack.  Were they willing to send their sons to battle?  Should they flee the lives that they had built and head to the mountains?  Enter Beowulf, the reigning warrior and leader of Geats for the past 20 years (and, I might add, quite a striking figure).  As he is making an impassioned plea for their help, a foot soldier arrives with a golden pitcher that he discovered in the forest.  He suggests that they send a team to scavenge for more gold to pay soldiers to join their forces.  Beowulf and the town elders quickly realize that the pitcher came from a dragon's den that has now been disturbed and that Geats suddenly has two battles to wage--one against the soldiers seeking to pillage their homes and persons and another against the dragon. 

The story builds from there, with Beowulf's illegitimate daughter arriving to seek Beowulf's help in defending her homeland against the marauders who have been attacking it.  He agrees, so long as she first acts as a "peacemaker" in their current battle.  (Come to find out, the peacemaker not only becomes the face of the nation, but is also required to marry the head of the attacking legion if they win, thus binding the two forces and creating peace.)     I could say more about the story, but I don't think I can do it justice in the retelling.  Suffice it to say that it kept us all glued to our seats. 

The acting was top notch and the production was very powerful--moving and dramatic but with a good measure of humor mixed in.  There is an immediacy to this type of theater experience that is hard to convey in words.  The actors were literally right in front of us, and the audience became part of the conversation (which, I'm happy to report, was not in Old English!)  The costumes were great and the music was unique and haunting.   The fog rolled in about two-thirds of the way through the performance, adding an atmospheric element that cannot be created with a fog machine.  I'd be remiss not to mention the giant puppet horse and dragon that made appearances during the show.  The horse in particular was fantastic, and is just one indication of the creativity that went into this production.    All in all, a most enjoyable evening.

I wanted to share part of the letter from the Artistic Director of Two Planks and a Passion Theater (also known as "Theatre Off the Grid.") that was in the program for the show.   "... On a secluded farm far from the bustle of modern life, we choose to evoke a time when the theatre was central to the sharing of ideas, aspirations and emotions.  It didn't require computers, amplicification or electricity.  It only required that we come together and witness something passionate and true."    Lofty aspirations, but if "Beowulf" is representative of Two Planks and a Passion's productions, they are living up to them.

I heard from a friend that next year's production will be "Lysistrada," one of Aristophanes' eleven surviving plays.  The play was written in 411 BC and is the story of one woman's efforts to end a war by withholding sex.  Realizing that the play might need a bit of updating, it will be set in the era of the Civil War.   I can't wait!


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