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On the Culture Front: Beowulf at Joe's Pub, The Housemaid, and the New York International Fringe Festival

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On Thursday night, I caught a performance of Banana Bag and Bodice's Beowulf: A Thousand Years of Baggage, an off-off Broadway hit that got a lot of good buzz when it ran last year. The show takes a deconstructionist approach to that Old English poem that we were all forced to read at one point or another in school. Jason Craig's script highlights the battles between Beowulf and Grendel, and subsequently, Grendel's Mother. I would love to have seen it on the original set, which was a faux wrestling ring, but the company made the most of the entire space at Joe's Pub, including the back area near the bar and on top of the mini wall that divides the two levels. We sat on bar stools near the entrance to avoid the drink minimum, which posed a couple problems: a) there was a large pillar that split the stage, forcing me to crane my neck at moments to see half the band including the clarinetist who had a few klezmer-infused solos and b) we were blinded by a stage light during a few scenes when characters perched on the wall slightly above our heads. Otherwise, it was a pretty great show that reaffirmed you can take an audience on a wild ride complete with dragon slaying and other epic battles with little more than a few well-placed props. David Malloy's eclectic score, loosely reminiscent of Weimar cabaret, helped immensely, and proved to be a driving force. The songs' brassy richness convey the blood-soaked passion of the characters beautifully. Malloy and gang play a final New York show at Joe's Pub on Saturday night before taking it on the road to Boston and then Montreal. It's the kind of piece that's ripe for a cult following, so it'd be great to see it land a residency somewhere in the city. With all the moats, I can't help thinking that Galapagos in Brooklyn would be the perfect venue.

Earlier on Thursday, I attended a screening of Im Sang-soo's The Housemaid and was absolutely and completely blown away. Sang-soo shoots with a visual flair that brings to mind the brutality of Michael Haneke spliced with slight absurdist flourishes not unlike Luis Bunuel's lighter moments in Belle de Jour. The story is pretty straightforward: a young woman is hired to be a maid for a very wealthy family and is seduced by the patriarch, Hoon. In a lot of ways, it's a classic love triangle with many juicy scenes of plotting between the betrayed wife and her evil mother. But the real heart of the film is a class warfare struggle. There's a sense that nothing matters to the family except money and status. They solve all their problems by writing checks and see their staff as machines to satisfy their needs. This is even true of Hoon, who gruffly seduces his maid, Eun-Yi, assuming she wants him because he's so accustomed to getting what he wants. Besides the maid and the young girl she looks after, the characters are very hard to empathize with, but Sang-soo manages to draw us in through the suspense he creates. The film begins with a startling image of a woman falling to her death, which sets the film to a sort of free fall tempo where terrible things can happen at a moment's notice. The gloom is kept at bay to some extent by offbeat sarcastic asides made by a couple of the maids and incongruous character traits, like Hoon playing beautiful classical pieces on the piano with a gentle touch that suggests there might be something human buried deep inside him beneath the piles of money that have corroded his soul. For a film that never mentions politics, it has a piercing message about the inherent problems (both moral and practical) that arise from the growing gap between the haves and have-nots. The film makes its North American premiere next week at the Toronto Film Festival and will be screening at MoMA later in the month.

And finally, while the Fringe Festival ended last week, a number of the better shows are receiving an extended run next week as part of the FringeNYC Encore Series. It's a pretty eclectic lineup and includes my favorite play of the fest, Hearts Full of Blood. The tightly constructed play from Chicago's New Colony theater group begs for an off-Broadway run and is better than most of the plays currently running. I also enjoyed the new musicals Pope and Jurassic Parq. Both shows could have been ridiculous but succeed due to the former's commitment to its zaniness and the latter's surprisingly thought-provoking exploration of gender and sexual identity that springs from the source material's premise that all the dinosaurs on the island are female to keep the peace. There are particularly great scenes between two T-Rexs as they navigate their feelings for each other. Other notable shows include TOSOS' murderously campy revival of the Five Lesbian Brothers' The Secretaries and the deceptively titled and incredibly moving Hurricane Katrina Comedy Festival that compellingly tells the stories of a handful of unique New Orleanians. The actors give nuanced performances that evoke the enormity of the hurricane without slipping into melodrama. There are also a number of shows I missed but want to see including Amsterdam Abortion Survivor, When Last We Flew, Running, the Twentieth Century Way, Lost and Found and more. The Encore Series runs from Sept. 9th to the 26th.