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Beowulf fights monsters at Spirit Square

Beowulf (Jeff Whiteside) confronts the dragon during rehearsal for the Citizens of the Universe performance at the Duke Energy Theater at Spirit Square.
Beowulf (Jeff Whiteside) confronts the dragon during rehearsal for the Citizens of the Universe performance at the Duke Energy Theater at Spirit Square. DON BOEKELHEIDE

The improbable voyage of “Beowulf” to Spirit Square started two months ago at Tommy’s Pub, the popular bar on Central Avenue now scheduled for demolition.

“Beowulf” now is being performed at the Spirit Square’s Duke Energy Theater.

Beginning in April, Megan Sky, the organizer, director and co-writer, started holding meetings at Tommy’s to talk about the show. A youthful bundle of red-haired energy, Sky wanted create an original theater piece based on the 1,000-year-old Anglo-Saxon epic poem.

With James Cartee of Charlotte’s improvisational theater company Citizens of the Universe, Sky recruited a “Beowulf” group. Perched on bar stools along Tommy’s beer-stained counter, the group decided to stick close to the original: The hero Beowulf faces and defeats the monster Grendel, kills Grendel’s even more ferocious mother and finally meets his doom slaying a fire-breathing dragon.

Sky stuck with Tommy’s for the auditions, using a dingy little room off the bar. Much of “Beowulf” takes place in a mead hall – more or less a Medieval version of Tommy’s – with Vikings replacing bikers and honey wine in place of Coors Light.

For rehearsals, the production moved from Tommy’s to the former Carolina Actors Studio Theater space in NoDa. With help from the cast, Sky and Cartee continued to rewrite the play.

Zannah Kimbrel, a graduate student in UNC Charlotte’s Religious Studies Department, plays Grendel.

“Grendel was read in the original as a vicious monster, but we have chosen to look at it as a representation of indigenous peoples who were destroyed or forced to assimilate at the hands of conquering forces.” Kimbrel said. “Grendel and its mother are representative of an ancient, earthly force, and can be seen as feminine, in opposition to the ‘civilized,’ masculine warriors who have come to subjugate it.”

Only days before the first performance, Sky and company finally gained access to Spirit Square.

“This is a great space, but it is tricky.” Sky said. “We are more used to performing in found spaces. To be in a ‘real’ theater with real equipment and lighting is a huge advantage, but there are all kinds of rules here.”

“Beowulf” is a timeless story with lasting influence: “The Hobbit” borrowed from Beowulf, as did “Harry Potter.”

Citizens’ and Sky’s local version is approachable, owing much to improvisational and street-theater technique.

And, in a city where developers routinely destroy unruly but creative spaces such as Tommy’s, it may be especially worthwhile, as Robin Bates suggests, to look again to the ancient story of Beowulf for lessons in balance and heroism.

Don Boekelheide is a freelance writer. Have a story idea for Don? Email him at unicity3@gmail.com.

Want to go?

“Beowulf,” presented by Citizens of the Universe, will be performed in the Duke Energy Theater at Spirit Square at 8 p.m. July 22-25.

▪ Details: 704-372-1000 or www.blumenthalarts.org.

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