The James Theater to show one-man adaptation of ‘Beowulf’

Actor John Heimbuch and director Amy Rummenie will bring Charlie Bethel’s one-man adaptation of Beowulf to the James Theater on Sept. 30 and Oct. 1.


Gabby Drees

John Heimbuch performs at a rehearsal for the play BEOWULF at the James Theater in Iowa City on Friday, Sept. 30, 2022. BEOWULF performs live Friday and Saturday.

Stella Shipman, Arts Reporter

The legend of Beowulf is over a thousand years old. It details the journey of the hero, Beowulf, who slays the monster, Grendel, at the request of the King of Danes. Beowulf then has to defeat Grendel’s mother as well. The play concludes with Beowulf ruling as the King of Geats for fifty years, dying from a wound he receives from slaying a dragon.

Beowulf ran from Sept. 30 to Oct. 1 at the James Theater. This performance captured the essence of the original Beowulf tale in Charlie Bethel’s one-man adaptation. 

Charlie Bethel originally wrote his adaptation of Beowulf around 2001 as a storytelling show that only involved himself telling the tale as faithfully as possible — sharing the story the way a group of friends around a campfire would. John Heimbuch, the actor in this Beowulf adaptation, adopted this version with only slight modifications depending on how the text had shifted over the years.

Heimbuch’s background as a performer is in storytelling and playwriting of epic tales. 

“For me, it was kind of a natural fit to come to do this tale,” Heimbuch said. His background in modern dancing also allows him to bring a “physicality” to the retelling of the tale. 

Heimbuch has been acting in productions since the late 1990s, and also worked as a traveling actor after college. In 2004, he and his spouse, Beowulf director Amy Rummenie, and collaborator, David Pisa, formed the Walking Shadow Theatre Company. Having been more focused on writing and directing since then, he has returned to acting within the past four years. 

“I came back to acting in part because I had known Charlie Bethel’s work for a long time and I really loved the writing that he did of Beowulf, and Gilgamesh, and The Odyssey,” Heimbuch said. 

Participating in this adaptation is a tribute to Bethel, who recently passed away. Heimbuch’s modifications to the Beowulf text keep Bethel’s adaptation alive while also creating a personalized retelling. 

“You have the layer of the ancient story, you have the layer of Charlie telling it, and then you have the layer of John learning from Charlie to tell the ancient story but still making it his own,” Rummenie said. 

This adaptation of Beowulf is versatile in the sense that it can be performed anywhere. Heimbuch has been performing it since 2019 in indoor and outdoor spaces from backyards to churches. The James Theater offered a space in which Heimbuch expanded his storytelling using lighting cues. Otherwise, he maintained the simplicity of the performance with only a stool and a bottle of water onstage. 

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The medium of the adaptation also allows Heimbuch to engage with the audience in ways he would not have been able to as part of a larger ensemble. Heimbuch noted how he can establish a connection with the audience that allows them to both interact with the tale and drive the performance forward.

“That presence of us, me and the audience at the same, is the thing that I’m most trying to preserve in doing this piece,” Heimbuch said.

Jordan Decker, the director of events and programming at the James Theater, connected with Heimbuch through a co-producer of Beowulf, Patrick Delaney. To promote publicity for the show, Decker worked with the Iowa City Book Festival to make the show an event of the festival and purchase tickets for University of Iowa students. 

“It’s kind of a great representation of how the entire Iowa City arts community can work together,” said Decker. “We can build things together and bring outstanding regional artists to town.”

Decker was very excited to host Heimbuch and the Beowulf performance at the James Theater. He hopes the show will bring attention to the theater, which opened in February, and help it develop a promising future. 

“We’re a young theater still but we’re working hard to be dynamic and accessible,” Decker said. “We want to work together with the community to try to get some other artists from outside the community in here, but also support the artists within the community with what they’re trying to do.”

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