By Chantal Mendes
This Sunday the enterprising theater troupe Banana Bag & Bodice brings its distinctively modern adaptation of an ancient classic, Beowulf – A Thousand Years of Baggage, to Oberon in Cambridge, MA. For those of us who missed the recent movie version, Beowulf conjures up sleepy times in early English Literature class. Given that this production is billed as a “raw & rowdy, pared-down mead hall version” chances are that this will not be a dutiful run through of the epic poem. (See photo above) Curious about what was being done to Beowulf, I chatted with Jessica Jeliffe, co-founder of Banana Bag & Bodice, whose motto is “We do PlayShows.”
(Arts Fuse Review of September 5 show.)
AF: Hi Jessica, can you tell me a little bit about your role in Banana Bag and Bodice?
JJ: Anything that has to get done! (Laughs) Pretty much. My husband, Jason Craig, and I started the company 11 years ago in early 1998. Jason is the playwright for our company so he tends to do everything in terms of creative writin and I’ll take on the grant-speak writing. We try to put our specialties together. It’s sort of a funny little mishmash – a very mom and pop kind of venture.
AF: Where did the name “Banana Bag & Bodice” come from?
JJ: If you go to our website the image that you see in the top left hand corner is actually a photograph taken of myself and Jason after we had just met. We’re just dressed up to go out on Halloween and in that picture is a banana and a bag and a bodice. Sparked by the alliteration that you find among the objects in that photograph a name was born. My older brother Patrick took the photograph and our very good friend who helped us found the company gets the credit for coming up with the name.
AF: Banana Bag & Bodice isn’t afraid to tackle a variety of projects from Sewers, described on your website as an “aborted living room drama play” to Beowulf – a Thousand Years of Baggage. How did having such an eclectic mix of shows become a defining characteristic of BB&B?
JJ: Oftentimes we’d apply to a festival or a grant and we’d have to have a title and that title would sort of end up defining the show for us. Mostly our interests are just across the board. We definitely don’t like to repeat ourselves, that’s pretty important. We’re interested in things that are interesting to us, that are intriguing and that we hope other people can find intriguing. You could say we’re pretty picky. We really demand a lot from ourselves when we create the shows. The initial idea, the initial spark can come from almost anything but when you get right down to the nitty gritty of putting the show together those pieces have to be pretty good to get up on stage and stay there.
AF: Your version of Beowulf seems drastically more exciting than the dry poem taught by English professors everywhere. What inspired this rowdy, raucous reimagining of the classic epic?
JJ: Honestly it just has to do with what we found interesting in the story. It can be seen as very dry. Jason in particular is very, very good at pulling out another layer or layers of meaning in just about anything he writes. I don’t know if it’s always conscious when he’s putting pen to paper or typing, but we find in rehearsal after he’s written sections of text that there are these really wild little strains that happen, these little ideas that bubble up from underneath and are able to inform a fairly simple story in really intriguing ways. We address some really interesting points.
AF: It sounds like a kind of self-evolution to me, would you agree?
JJ: It is and it isn’t. The original text and the original music is put together and honed by the ensemble. The text is malleable to a certain point, but Jason Craig gives it a very specific voice. The last thing that we do is perform in the middle of the room: the ensemble works together to try and figure it out and pull out the strands that are most interesting to us.
We really do work together to create a piece. We’ve worked with a lot of people on Beowulf and because of new people and experiences there have been some amazing steps made in the creation of that piece. It’s so much fun. Everyone’s input is invited. The inspiration that people have brought into the room is unavoidable.
AF: What does Beowulf offer to the contemporary audience in terms of entertainment – what makes it exciting today but also true to the original threads of the Scandinavian myth?
JJ: We feel that we’re very respectful. The film that came out in the last couple of years took some artistic liberties with the actual story and we felt that we needed to stick with the story told by the poem as best we could. At the same time we can’t deny who we are or what century we live in and what experiences we’ve personally had as human beings and how that affects the poem. The poem itself was told and retold over a few hundred years and every time it was told a little differently. That’s the true beauty of the poem. It still feels like what it was – this living, breathing, developing, growing poem. It’s our job to grapple with art and we do that in a really interesting, entertaining, humorous way with enough respect to balance it out. Mostly I think we just have a hell of a lot of fun on stage with the music and the performance and the direct interaction with the audience.
AF: You’ve gotten a lot of really great reviews from such publications as The New Yorker to Variety. Does that feel like validation for all the work you’ve put into Beowulf?
JM: It’s really great to get reviews. We keep working on Beowulf and it keeps changing and we keep making it better. It’s never done in our eyes. Theater is a living breathing art form — that’s what makes it so fantastic and will keep it alive until humanity dies.