Davenport’s presence, power lift Poets’ ‘Beowulf’

Johnny Lee Davenport, Rachel Wiese, Rebecca Lehrhoff, Jesse Garlick, Amanda Gann in The Poets' Theatre production of “Beowulf.” Photo: Andrew Brilliant Brilliant Pictures

Johnny Lee Davenport, Rachel Wiese, Rebecca Lehrhoff, Jesse Garlick, Amanda Gann in The Poets’ Theatre production of “Beowulf.” Photo: Andrew Brilliant Brilliant Pictures

CAMBRIDGE – The Poets’ Theatre is dedicated to the spoken word.

It aims to present “cutting edge contemporary poetic drama, classic texts daringly re-imagined, brilliant translations of the greatest plays from around the world, and events structured around the poetic voice, its cultural ambitions and explorations.”

The troupe’s production of “Albatross” that starred Benjamin Evett was a critical success and the current production of the epic poem “Beowulf” at the Cambridge Multicultural Arts Center also checks the box on the mission statement of taking a classic text and daringly re-imagining it.

Seamus Heaney’s translation of the tale of the Danish king whose kingdom is rescued by a heroic warrior, a warrior who will later sacrifice himself to save his people, preserves the character and themes of the piece while making it accessible and exciting.

It requires a majestic presence who can be poetry in motion and that would be the redoubtable Johnny Lee Davenport, one of three poets who will take turns bringing the text to life, along with David Gullette, who adapted Heaney’s translation for the stage, and Amanda Gann.

Beowulf” was written in Anglo Saxon or Old English if you will, and Heaney’s translation adroitly brings out the violent confrontations between Beowulf and Grendel, Beowulf and Grendel’s mother, and the mortal combat against the dragon.

Rebecca Lehrhoff, Jesse Garlick and Rachel Wiese portray three thanes (lords) who supply energetic movement to the narration supplied by the poets

The poem tells the tale of of King Hrothgar, the ruler of the Danes, whose wealthy mead hall Heorot is being trashed by a demon named Grendel, who is killing – and eating – Danish warriors. Think of your friendly neighborhood bar being invaded by cannibalistic Hells Angels.

We need a Hero with a capital H. Into the breach steps a Geat warrior named Beowulf.

I mean to be a match for Grendel,” bellows Davenport as Beowulf, and you know right away the demon is in big trouble.

The tale unfolds apace, aided by Jay Mobley’s lively music direction, with support from Ethan Rubin. One small caveat: depending on where the musicians are located and the poets are located, the music can overpower the poets at times.

There’s even some juggling, magic,and a brisk, exciting demonstration of Viking combat by the Boston Viking Irish, a diverse group of Viking-Age history enthusiasts focused on the culture of the Hiberno-Norse, who first raided and then settled in Ireland in the ninth and tenth centuries.

Evett greeted patrons at the entrance of a recent performance and guided them to some Viking-themed food and drink. Other theater-goers were part of a pre-performance period dance.

In all, it’s an artistic, entertaining presentation. Bob Scanlan is president and artistic director of the Poets Theatre, with Evett serving as producing artistic director and they have major plans going forward for the troupe, which was first founded in 1950 and revived 18 months ago.  


The Ghostlight Series are monthly performances exploring the poetic side of theater and the theatrical side of poetry; and a performance of Dario Fo’s “Mistero Buffo” at the Modern Theatre from March 16-26 will celebrate the playwright’s 90th birthday and include in the cast Evett, Remo Airaldi and Debra Wise.

 The Poets Theatre in partnership with Liars & Believers production of “Beowulf.” Translated by Seamus Heaney Directed by Benjamin Evett Ensemble Direction by Jason Slavick Music Direction by Jay Mobley Costume design by Patria Ferragamo. Lighting design by Michael Clark Wonson. At the Multicultural Arts Center, 41 Second St., Cambridge through Dec. 20 http://www.poetstheatre.org.