We've encountered man-children in musicals before: the winsome Peter Pan, the urbane Bobby (Company), and the raging Johnny (American Idiot). But it's just plain weird to find one—actually, two—in a stage adaptation of Beowulf, the eighth-century Old English epic about monsters vanquished by warriors brave. That, however, is Matt Deitchman and Jed Feder's dubious achievement in Beowulf, Lord of the Bros, the first in a planned series of collaborations with N.C. State's University Theatre.
The stakes, and nearly everything else, have been noticeably lowered in this comical modern update. Designer Jayme Mellema has transformed Heorot, the ancient mead hall where a people's champions gathered, into a two-story college crash pad, festooned with movie posters, more than a dozen vintage neon beer signs, and a pro-quality sound system. This pleasure dump is ruled not by the monarch Hrothgar, but by Ross Garth (Tony Courville), a life-of-the-party guy in a Burger King crown whose regularly scheduled ragers are increasingly threatened by his neighbor, a techno-goth nerd named Grendelstein (a dour Justin Heald).
Just when all hope seems lost, Parker Gagnier's convincing title character, an exuberant uber-bro who comes complete with an oversize gong, swoops in as a new roommate who seemingly vanquishes Grendelstein. But in short order, Ross and his grad-school girlfriend, Cass (Molly Riddick), begin to realize that Beo (as he calls himself) is creating as many problems as he's solving.
But the true villain here isn't the internet troll downstairs, his MILF-y mother (Jessica Hamm), or the Dragon (Miranda Millang), an underworld figure whose costume is a dark-side tribute to supervillain cosplay. Instead, it's the extended adolescence that the two male leads are spending on increasingly borrowed time. Ross is still clinging to a fratboy lifestyle after graduation, which frustrates Cass, who is thinking more and more about the future. By the second-act rave-up "Get Me Out," all are actively questioning the sustainability of their relationships and their way of life, interrogating the supposed code that bros live by—at least, up to point.
When a gratuitous onstage shout-out to Alison Bechdel underlines the degree to which Beowulf, Lord of the Bros fails the "Bechdel test," it's unclear how much growth has actually taken place among any of the principals. After a far-fetched intervention, has Ross really changed in order to reconcile with the estranged Cass? Is moving back in with his parents actually a triumph for Beo? It's hard to say what's ultimately being celebrated in the final rager, beyond a return to the status quo. Though we're told adolescence is curable in the American male, the evidence remains inconclusive in Beowulf, Lord of the Bros.