Actors’ Theatre presents world premiere of comedy that flips classic lit on its head

What if we weren't really given the whole story about Beowulf in that classic piece of English literature? What if there's more, not only to the characters, but behind the way the story was told?

Actors' Theatre of Columbus opens its 2019 season with the world premiere of “Beowulf (and the Bard),” a comedy that wonders these and other things. But, said Vidas Barzdukas, a Columbus-based writer who co-authored the play with Atlanta-based writer Christopher Bartlett, don't think of the play as irreverent in its comedic approach. That implies that he doesn't revere the source material, which, he said, couldn't be further from the truth.

“It's kind of, ‘You think you know the story, but here's what really happened,'” Barzdukas said in an interview at a Downtown coffee shop. “I read ‘Beowulf.' I like ‘Beowulf.' I like to think of it as the version that we need now.”

Barzdukas and Bartlett tackle the tale in ways that just weren't available 1,000 years ago. One obvious way is via the inclusion of female characters. Another, perhaps less obvious but no less central to the update, is the nontraditional approach to heroism. The script doesn't so much dismiss the notion in its classic sense, but expands on it, Actors' Theatre Artistic Director Philip Hickman said.

“The idea is not that heroism doesn't exist anymore, or somehow undercutting what it means to be a hero, but [the play] allows heroism to be contextual and look different for different people,” Hickman said, referencing a female character named Gunborg, who is presented with an opportunity to be heroic. “What it means to be a hero is not just the actions they take but the choices they make in their lives. That allows anyone in the audience to view that and say, ‘I can do that. I don't need to go find a monster to slay.'”

“I've got daughters. Christopher has daughters. Of course it made sense to provide these viewpoints,” Barzdukas said. “Of course, this is a comedy, and it turns out [Gunborg] is a dipshit, too.”

Barzdukas said he and Bartlett started with the idea that perhaps the Beowulf tale didn't happen exactly as presented, but rather that the Bard who tells it was experiencing a bout of writer's block, and was just using Beowulf until something better came along. Along the way, the writers find opportunities aplenty to place the characters in absurd situations, often of their own making.

“It's such a big story with grand, epic ideas that are just right to turn on its head and throw stones at,” Barzdukas said.