For the past few years, theaters across the country have been peppered with stage versions of books, narrative voice intact, with characters, for example, who say their own lines of dialogue (“You must let me out of the box, Mildred”), then establish a narrative context by referring to themselves in the third person (“she said in a tone of withering contempt, eyes flashing”). This phenomenon has been due, in large part, to Seattle’s Book-It Repertory Theater, a company devoted entirely to the art of transforming literature to the stage while preserving the author’s voice in its adaptations. The 1997 Book-It season included two plays that would eventually wind their way down the coast to Los Angeles: Lady Chatterley’s Lover, performed last year at Pacific Resident Theater, and Grendel, adapted by Paul Mullin from John Gardner’s book — itself a riff on the anonymous seventh-century Old English poem Beowulf — and currently playing at the Open Fist Theater in a brilliant presentation by Circle X Theater Company. (Add to this list The Cider House Rules, Peter Parnell’s version of John Irving’s novel, commissioned and presented by the Mark Taper Forum in 1998.)
While the device of actors slipping out of character with the speed of a wink to comment wryly on their dialogue can make those actors look very smart and snazzy, that same device can get to be heavy-handed and grating (or, in the case of The Cider House Rules, largely irrelevant to the story). Indeed, any mode of literary adaptation will throw a spotlight on the core differences between theater and prose, not least of which lies in the extent to which opportunities for textual descriptions, so generously allotted to the novelist, are denied the playwright. Where the novelist may conjure up words to describe places and the nuances of interactions, for those same insights the playwright usually ends up depending on the skills of set, lighting and sound designers, and on the actors who replace narrative language with body language. When those same actors begin to dissect, in third person, what their characters have just said — or describe how they, the actors, feel about it — the effect is, to paraphrase an old Russian expression, like spreading jam on top of honey.
Hence my initial skepticism walking into Grendel.
First, though, to Gary Smoot’s set: an open platform stage (offering plenty of room to breathe) with a hardwood veneer anchored by a small, central rectangle painted onto the floor to resemble a piece of loosely woven burlap; on one side, suspended by wires from the ceiling, a series of soft, white sausagelike tubes — depicting a forest in the play’s reality, while, in terms of the production’s tonality, suggesting something like the interior of a butcher shop. Indeed, Grendel’s entire world is a slaughterhouse, more or less. Across the stage, more sausages stack up like the coils of a mattress spring to form the base of a small, circular pedestal, used also as a chair. A pair of looming upstage doors slide open and closed, as needed. At first they’re covered in burlap, which soon tumbles down to reveal the doors’ gold plating.
(Given the play’s dire themes, Smoot — and director Jim Anzide — could easily have concocted a grunge set, but they opt instead for an austere if slightly goofy elegance. Those sausages work strategically against any impulse to lose ourselves in some pre-Shakespearean grandeur, despite the space’s openness. Nor will you see little battery-operated claptraps snapping and rolling across the stage, nor inflatable cacti — Smoot’s trademarks in former Circle X productions. Here, he displays an almost punishing restraint.)
“Seek out gold — but not my gold — and guard it,” a prophet dragon (Helen Wilson) advises Grendel (the burly David Grammer) during an episode in the existential quest that constitutes the play’s action. For this is a story largely about the pursuit of gold and honor, and the pointless carnage such pursuits entail, as observed, both quizzically and bitterly, by Boewulf’s Grendel, an isolated, desperately lonely, flesh-eating nihilist, terrorist and all-round precursor to Hannibal Lecter — and Frankenstein, and Caliban, and the Skriker (of English mythology), and just about every bogeyman from every fairy tale and X-Files episode ever written. Beowulf himself (Karl Bury) arrives near play’s end to clean up the mess.
When Grendel first bursts onto the stage in Sara Foster’s sleeveless garage-mechanic overalls — with his name tag sewn in, by Mother — the first thing you may notice is how he’s accompanied by an ensemble of ghostly Grendels (including Michaela Watkins, Casey Smith, Alicia Martino, Tim Sabourin and Colin Doty) who share his general costume design and rhetorical style. The next thing you may notice is how the text consists almost entirely of description, physical and emotional; there’s nary a word of actual dialogue. Mullin’s task, then, lay in choosing how to distribute that text.
True to Gardner’s novel, Grendel — whose “voices” are everywhere, at least in the play’s opening and finale — is, for the most part, the only character to speak in the first-person singular. And then only on occasion, during moments of revelation and insight, as when he’s stuck upon a cliff and attacked by a bull, thereby arriving at a comprehension of nature’s utter lack of reason, or mercy.
There are two characters whom Grendel holds in particular contempt — for reasons, to Grendel’s way of thinking, that are very much connected. The first is the hero Unferth (Joel McHale), who comes to Grendel’s cave to slay him or die, for a lofty purpose which, like all higher purposes, Grendel finds laughable. In his cruelest humiliation of Unferth, Grendel declines to kill him, unceremoniously dumping him back on his own doorstep, where he’ll babble away the rest of his life, a broken man.
Grendel has an even more virulent beef against the local balladeer and storyteller known as the Shaper (Scott Tuomey), who croons to New Age–y accompaniment like a cross between Bob Dylan and Gil Scott-Heron. The Shaper is a dream-weaver, a poet, a spinner of lies who can take the chaos of existence and contrive it into “In the beginning, God created the Heaven and the Earth.” What heaven? What God? Grendel rages. And yet, the Shaper’s songs are so seductive, even to the monster, no wonder they inspire men to die fruitlessly in battles, to swim in rivers of blood. That art is a tool for warmongers intent upon the preservation of society’s entrenched values is the play’s most subversive notion. (This should give pause to liberal arts institutions: Jesse Helms, Rudy Giuliani et al. may, after all, be overstating art’s danger.)
Grendel’s story is, in the end, an attack upon Romanticism, presented as a somewhat Romantic yarn about an outcast monster who scores a good many rhetorical points, but also happens to eat people. He must, like King Kong, eventually perish. The use of dialogue, enhancing emotional connections, would belie the purpose of this adaptation. No thank you, says Mullin, who knows exactly what he’s doing. Waging war against sentimentality, his play is about the very constructions of words, and stories, and how they work both to reveal truths and sustain lies.
A review of the Seattle production lauded its rendering of Grendel as a despicable monster, and at the way it drew sympathy to the mortals he tormented, warning that to empathize with Grendel is to fall into an Elephant Man cliché of preaching to the audience how much it has to learn from the plight of the outsider. But if Grendel were merely contemptible, the play would amount to a kind of sacrificial ritual in the form of a comic book. At Circle X, Grendel is a charmer, both despicable and right, as are the mortals who finally prevail against him. I’m almost positive that’s the definition of tragedy. That’s what it felt like in the theater. I liked it a lot.
GRENDEL | Adapted by PAUL MULLIN from the book by JOHN GARDNER | Presented by CIRCLE X THEATER COMPANY at the OPEN FIST THEATER, 1652 N. La Brea Ave., Hollywood | Through September 22