A monster of a show

"Extreme violence. Viking laughter. Kids love it!"So says actor Charlie Bethel of his "Beowulf" show, a one-man tour de force he will revive for two performances in March at the Jungle Theater. Bethel first performed the classic monster tale and morality poem last fall, selling out five shows. The Star Tribune chose it as one of the best shows of 2001, and Bethel has been busy performing it in local high schools ever since. He has signed on to perform it in the 2002 Fringe Festival this summer, most likely at the Music Box Theatre.

For most of us reading "Beowulf" in junior or senior high, it was unmanageably large and often impenetrable. Bethel understands and admits it took him many years to cut the 11,000 lines of original text down to 1,500.

"I first read 'Beowulf' when I was 14," said Bethel. "I loved it. You know, it's very violent and bloody and full of gore. Just the kind of thing boys love! Did you know that there are 20 synonyms for the word 'gore' in the Anglo-Saxon language?"

Many years later, when Bethel was a senior at the North Carolina School of the Arts, he considered performing a one-man version but abandoned the idea as he only had a month to prepare. "I did a cabaret as Satan instead," he said, erupting into peals of his trademark laugh.

A few years later, the project finally began to take shape. Bethel was living in Chicago, with a 45-minute train commute to work each day. "I bought the Burton Raffel translation of 'Beowulf' because it fit into my back pocket and decided I would work on cutting it down while I rode the train, but then Penguin Books informed me that it would cost me $12,000 to buy the rights to this translation. So I decided to make my own."

Working with an Anglo-Saxon dictionary and a friend who knew the grammar of the language, Bethel spread translations across his apartment, undertaking what he calls a "comparative study of Beowulf's greatest hits." He eventually boiled the tale down to its most elemental level. "There's the three monsters, big death and a little beasting in between. I highlighted those portions and began to familiarize myself." By 1991 he had finished his own translation but was forced to put it on the back burner when the bottom fell out of his career.

"I had been a star at North Carolina, but in the real world I didn't fit any mold.

I made the rounds and did auditions and did a bunch of children's theatre, including a stint as a whaler in a show at the Shedd Aquarium, which was just awful, but it just wasn't enough." Unable to make a decent living as an actor in Chicago, he said he knew he needed to reinvent himself.

"I thought I would be a good stage manager but I needed to educate myself." He began by doing props on a Minnesota Opera tour and ended up as company manager for Children's Theatre Company's annual tour and finally as community programs coordinator at the Jungle Theater.

But each summer, in secret, Bethel said, he would rehearse "Beowulf," attempting to make it "as American as possible. I wanted to MTV-size it." Last June, he took a trip to New York, which he today can only describe as "magical." "I always thought that God would let me know when it was time to do the show. In New York I saw a lot of my North Carolina friends, many of them now on Broadway. And over and over they would say something to the effect of 'You're going to go to hell for not using your talents.' And then they would ask me 'Do you have a project you really want to do?'" When his former college pal Mary Louise Parker, then starring in "Proof" on Broadway, told him the same thing, Bethel said he knew it was time to do the show.

He returned to the Twin Cities and convinced the Jungle to let him have the theater on Monday nights when it was traditionally dark. He talked to friends and colleagues, did "focus group performances," pulled together promotional materials and booked the show for five performances in October. And then 9-11 happened and Bethel feared what the impact would be on his show. "It was so strange because 9-11 actually reinforced what this tale is about. It truly is an archetypal tale of terror. It's about terror and reactions to terror and ways to overcome it. It's a tale that could be told at a trash can burning at Ground Zero, it's that timeless."

Bethel has performed the show in several area high schools and hopes that someday he'll take his "Beowulf" to New York. The show has convinced him that he belongs on stage once again, yet he is mindful of becoming a "one-show man." "I feel very blessed to have done this. I want to do as much as I can with it in Minnesota. Maybe it will become an annual event." In the meantime, Bethel promised, "it's unnerving and will have you out killing demons of your own before the night is over."