By Chad Nance
“So now as I’m leavin’
I’m weary as Hell
The confusion I’m feelin’
Ain’t no tongue can tell
The words fill my head
And fall to the floor
If God’s on our side
He’ll stop the next war.”
– Bob Dylan
“The owl, the owl
Is a lonely bird
It chills my heart
With dread and terror
That someone’s blood
That someone’s blood
There on his wing
That someone’s blood
There on his feather…”
-traditional as arranged by Tim Eriksen
Western literature begins with one story. One tale so monumentally relatable, so frightening and so compelling that it has been told and retold since an Icelandic bard first sung the lay around a crackling fire. That one tale is the story of Beowulf, King of the Geats. Triad Stage’s revival of the Appalachian Folk Musical, “Brother Wolf,” transplants the “Beowulf” narrative from the stony, frozen fjords of Scandinavia to the lush, green forest, mountains and hollers of Appalachia. What results is a thoughtful, entertaining and deeply moving exploration of the meaning of myth, community, spirituality, vengeance and love.
By now, Beowulf, Hrothgar, and Grendel’s story has so completely permeated Western Europeans’, and by extension Southern Americans’, sense of themselves that the DNA of the great epic is felt from the King James Bible to the works of JRR Tolkien. Uniquely American heroes from Dirty Harry to John McClane bear the mark of the Great Geat who is ubiquitous across modern literature. Preston Lane’s theatrical re-telling, “Brother Wolf,” is a vibrant contribution to a long cannon contributed to by a pool of talent which includes celebrated novelist John Gardner and techno-thriller maestro Michael Creighton.
Lane places “Beowulf” into an Appalachian setting that retains its own exoticism yet can contain the parts of the Beowulf tale that are epic, operatic, and in the end, primeval. When one looks at works as varied as “Cold Mountain” and the Cohen Brother’s “Oh Brother Where Art Thou”’s Classicism meets Southern myth/culture match up, it is easy to see that the geography and the hardships inherent with life in the Appalachian Mountains are a worthy tableau for literature’s greatest and grandest storytelling. Lane’s achievement here is substantive.
The book of “Brother Wolf” not a simple pastiche of the “Beowulf” story dressed up with some Appalachian folk music. Lane’s narrative approach incorporates scholarly and creative work on “Beowulf” such as the deconstructionist approach of John Gardner’s “Grendel.” Like Gardner’s classic, “Brother Wolf” was created during a time of national crisis and war in America. When Grendel was released in 1971 to tell the “Beowulf” story from the “monster’s” point of view, the approach felt radical and fresh like Sam Packinpah’s Vietnam-era Westerns or Dennis Hoppers more asphalt level “Easy Rider.” In Gardener’s book and Lane’s play, Grendel is not an outside invader, rather he is an inevitable part of the landscape from a deep and ancient time before the tiny footsteps of men. This approach dove-tailed neatly with the national crisis of conscience America went through during and after the Vietnam War. The reality that we were not infallible crashed head-long into a nation that had been cruising along on a post WWII cockiness and had been drunk on Manifest Destiny for centuries- a conviction that no matter what we did it must be right because we were morally superior to the rest of the world, and besides… God was on our side.
Lane’s take on the saga was clearly written in a post 9-11 world where our nation’s quest for righteous vengeance led us into a crusade across the ocean with the vast “other” of the Islamic world. This crusade did not lead to the cathartic destruction of great evil, rather it led to more sorrow both in the homeland and in the broader world. In “Brother Wolf,” God doesn’t take sides. He observes from afar, allowing man and his demons to slug it out on and under the rugged mountain tops of North Carolina and Tennessee. As if to underline the connections to our national nightmares of Vietnam and the Oil Wars, Lane and songwriter Laurelyn Dossett include direct lifts and allusions to Bob Dylan’s classic song “With God on Our Side.”
“Brother Wolf” is not a simplistic morality tale, however. No pat conclusions are offered and the depth of the questions raised makes this a unique and fulfilling theater experience. There is a tension in the piece between the primeval, natural world that surrounds the characters. The very granite, pine trees, ferns and beasts compete with the coming of man, his lust for empire building, and his devotion to a rather absent God. The basics of “Beowulf” remain the same from its roots in Icelandic sagas to its re-imagining here- no matter how much dominion man takes over the earth, there are things in nature that cannot be controlled, bargained or reasoned with. The natural world and her natural cruelties are no respecters of empires nor empire builders.
Perhaps the lesson here is told in Brother Wolf’s transformation from a didactic, scorched-earth warrior into a weary old man who has not only lost stomach for the fight, but for life itself. Lane’s hero seems to learn that evil is inevitable and cannot be crushed… mostly because it emanates from within us- not from without. In the end, brethren and sisteren, the battle is with no one else but ourselves and the sooner we have a solid bead on the true enemy the sooner true victory can be claimed.
Lane’s language, Dossett’s music and the performances by this fine cast make “Brother Wolf” a moving and inspiring theater experience. Preston Lane’s writing might strike some as arch or overwrought, but in truth the strong poetics and passionate classicism are not only beautiful to listen to, but period and culturally correct as well. Like Daniel Woodrell’s Civil War novel “Woe to Live On” and Charles Portis’ “True Grit,” Lane’s almost Shakespearean language is not a self-indulgent stunt, but rather an accurate portrayal of how many Americans in the south, particularly the remote south, communicated with one another.
The literature most of those early settlers would have had access to would have been the King James Bible, collected works of Shakespeare, and printed tracts such as Jonathan Edwards’ sermon “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God.” If one reads letters, business correspondence, and other kinds of basic communication from the early 1800’s you will find much of the language to be grand, over-heated, and mock-formal in the way that Lane works here. This allows the actors in “Brother Wolf” to truly shine with literary red meat to chew on. What results is a joyful gift to the attentive audience.
Triad Stage’s complete company of actors do spectacular work with the world that Dossett and Lane have created. Chris Raddatz stands tall as Brother Wolf in a charismatic, intense performance that is equal parts inspiring and heart-breaking. His transformation into Brother Wolf’s dark doppelganger, Rattler Man is frightening, seductive and laced with casual cruelty. This transition is critical for the play’s denouement as Brother Wolf is temporarily defeated by the evil he so boisterously opposed. He is torn asunder by his own darkness with his vengeance becoming personified as a homicidal, snake-handling preacher whose final gospel is death and suffering itself. Left behind is a broken old man portrayed with great feeling and dignity by David Stitler. The actor’s performance is steeped in bone weariness and hard won wisdom.
Scott Pattison stands out as Gren Dell in an aggressive, physical and larger-than-life performance that dominates through his unleashed energy and craftsman-like comic timing. As his demon mother from the primal depths of the mountain, Dori Legg excels with pugnacious malevolence. Her work here personifies one of the play’s most integral themes… be careful about the vengeance you long for. What follows your original foe could be a bitch beyond your wildest and gloomiest imaginings.
“Brother Wolf’s” conscience and embodiment of earthly humanity is Leah Turley’s Mabel. This young actress is truly a find. Turley looks like she stepped out of an Andrew Wyeth painting and the heart in her performance is romantic and willful. Unlike in “Beowulf,” when Gren Dell’s mother emerges from her slimy hole to wreak terrible vengeance, she does not attack a young and fell warrior. In “Brother Wolf” the hag goes after life itself- a young, vibrant and strong mother who holds within her a child; a product of love born of a bond made over Gren Dell’s carcass. Not only does Mabel’s murder have more profound implications than the death of Hrothgar’s son in “Beowulf,” it is also a more fearful symmetry in Lane’s play as it is Mabel, not Brother Wolf, who kills Gren Dell in an act of bloody vengeance.
The music for “Brother Wolf” is uniformly excellent and soulful. Celebrated songwriter/vocalist Laurelyn Dossett’s lyrics work well with Lane’s prose to create the narrative mosaic and primal atmospherics that make Brother Wolf a moving live theater experience. Riley Baugus’ work on banjo, fiddle, and guitar are a subtle display of casual virtuosity. His high lonesome singing, however, provides “Brother Wolf” with the same ambiance found on quiet, foggy mountain mornings and summer evenings thick with the sounds of life and green smells.
From the innovative set design and stage management to the exciting fight scenes, the crew behind “Brother Wolf,” led by stage manager Janine Wochna and scenic designer Howard C. Jones, does crucial work on the production side. They labor to create an immersive experience that far from getting in the way of the actors or merely providing a pretty place to stand, becomes an integral part of “Brother Wolf’s” story-telling. The set itself morphs and changes as the story progresses bringing a dream-like surrealism to the play. In a clever melding of the original work and the needs of the production, several actors play “Shadows” clad all in black. Their performances are a mix of dance and being a stage hand. The Shadows appear in the original “Beowulf” text and Lane uses them here (as did Professor Tolkien in the “Lord of the Rings”) as agents of the ancient evil and a physical personification and representation of the villains powers. They are the corporeal hands and agents of the dark.
“Brother Wolf” is a tremendous achievement in live theater. From the soaring poetry of its language to the subtle grace of the music, The Triad Stage’s second production of Lane’s work does not disappoint in any way. Engaging the intellect and the soul, “Brother Wolf” is both timely and timeless, and a solid reminder that even in the darkness of our mysterious and primordial past, to be human is to share stories. We tell one another tales so that we might, in some small way, come to terms with those things that go bump in the night. We might as well. No matter what foul beasties exist out there in the night, in the end, they are a part of us as well.
“Brother Wolf” runs through May 25th at the Hanesbrands Theater. for more information about shows and to buy tickets you can go to Triad stage HERE.