The final line of the one-man "Beowulf" — "Get out there and do, before you're done" — is tricky in our "stay home" era, but that advice will remain powerful when we arrive at whatever the new normal looks like.
More than a millennium old, the epic poem "Beowulf" feels strikingly immediate in Walking Shadow Theatre Company's "virtual performance," particularly since the lone performer, John Heimbuch, is literally speaking directly to us.
In the first of what could be a wave of theater productions that temporarily connect with theatergoers via the internet, "Beowulf" is being performed on Facebook, with Heimbuch acting directly to a camera on a computer in his Minneapolis home. (You can pause the performance, I inadvertently discovered, and it remains available for a couple hours after showtime. You do not need to be a Facebooker to watch.)
The roughly one-hour piece, the Saturday performance of which was watched by about 60 people, was written by the late Charlie Bethel (and performed last year at the Minnesota Fringe Festival by Heimbuch).
Bits of language suggest that this "Beowulf," based on the oldest piece of literature we have, is still set in the Dark Ages, but it's not just the fact that you're watching it on your monitor at home that makes it feel modern. Heimbuch is dressed in jeans and an Oxford shirt, with a midcentury modern, burnt-orange leather chair behind him.
In addition, Bethel's ironic, slyly amusing observations make this story of battling kings and giants feel as current as, well, sheltering in place.
The style will be familiar to anyone who has done or seen "Dramatic Interpretation" in high school speech club. Heimbuch is sometimes a grand storyteller, relating events to us. But he often slips into one of several characters, including heroic Beowulf and, at one point, a head that is "stained with gore."
Heimbuch and director Amy Rummenie, who are married, use the space smartly, taking advantage of the actor's ability to come toward us into close-up (something that is not available to a theater actor). Heimbuch's characterizations are clear and, in the case of Beowulf's buddy, Wiglaf, moving.
No one's going to claim that this "Beowulf" is a substitute for live theater. Immediacy is lost because we're not breathing the same air as Heimbuch (a good thing, these days). And while a one-person show is obviously a smart move right now, there's no substituting for the honesty and beauty of performers interacting with each other to shed light on humanity.
Still, this "Beowulf" speaks to our present moment in the way great theater can, particularly when a king warns of "a curse we made ourselves."
Our worlds may have gotten temporarily smaller, and we may feel, like Beowulf, as if we're battling a giant that we cannot see. But this ancient story and this innovative way of presenting theater are hopeful reminders that tomorrow will come and, even if it's not as soon as we wish, the fortunate among us will be able to get out there and do again,