In “Beardo,” we are back in Russia with Dave Malloy, the composer of “Natasha, Pierre and the Great Comet of 1812.” Instead of a Broadway theater, the Pipeline Theater Company’s new production of Malloy’s musical has opened at St. John’s Lutheran Church in Greenpoint, Brooklyn. And instead of dramatizing a novel by Tolstoy, “Beardo” tells a fictional version of an actual figure in Russian history, the enigmatic Grigori Rasputin.
Some of the elements familiar from “Great Comet” are present in “Beardo,” most notably Malloy’s classically tinged, eclectic score offering everything from rock ballads to hearty drinking songs, as well as a game and talented cast. But “Beardo,” which premiered in Berkeley in 2011, a year before the premiere of “Great Comet” at Ars Nova, feels in comparison like a work in progress. The book and lyrics by Jason Craig are playful, sometimes clever, silly, ribald, deliberately anachronistic, joyfully shocking and in-your-face weird. They are too accomplished to be labeled juvenile….but “adolescent” might fit.
Click on any photo by Suzi Sadler to see it enlarged.
A snippet of dialogue:
BEARDO: Dude, what’s your deal?
YUSAPOOF My deal? Dude? Don’t slang this place up with your bumpkin parlance And your weird twaddle!
BEARDO Oh ya? You wanna see my twaddle waddle?
YUSAPOOF I don’t need to listen to you, ok? I am a fucking count
“Beardo” makes no pretense of presenting a faithful biography of Rasputin, the peasant mystic who became an influential adviser to the last Tsar of Russia — which didn’t end well for him or the Tsar. “Beardo” doesn’t even mention the name Rasputin (although the program does include an advertisement for a new biography by Douglas Smith entitled: “Rasputin: Faith, Power, and the Twilight of the Romanovs.”) Instead, the musical plays with the myth that has built up around the bearded faith healer.
We first see a dirty, ragged Beardo (Damon Daunno) outside a peasant’s shack with his hand stuck in a hole, and a voice in his head. The shack man (Rolls Andre) takes him into his home, where Beardo eventually empowers the man’s sister-in-law to speak for the first time in 15 years – and to kill her abusive sister. He also yanks out the man’s tooth, and demands that the man whip him 24 times. Beardo considers his cruelty sinful, but he starts to believe, as he tells this family, that sinning is good for you – “You get loose” which “causes you to get a bit fun” – as long as you apologize for you sins afterward.
Armed with this insight, he barges his way into the castle of the Tsar (Willy Appelman) and his wife the Tsarista (Alex Highsmith), and, in the words of the play, he grabs her ass – “because,” he explains to her, “this will help us both.”
Beardo soon beds her, calms her sickly son, and gains the confidence of the shy Tsar; he also becomes a prolific womanizer. All of this wins him the ire of all of Russia, aristocrats and peasantry alike.
Director Ellie Heyman keeps the eight-member cast in motion, climbing up and down the scaffolding inside the church (I wondered whether this was set up specifically for the show, or whether St. John’s is undergoing extensive renovations. It’s the former.) The band, with Sam Kulik as the conductor and guitarist, is a lovely string quartet that does great justice to Malloy’s music. But one of the two most memorable moments of “Beardo” occurs without the band’s accompaniment, when, right before the intermission, a huge choir in peasant attire suddenly appears in the church’s rafters, to sign Malloy’s song called “Russia’
Inside palace gates
sits a Tsarista and her mate
This strange Beardo
puts a hood over our heads bamboozling blinded state …
God Help Us
Give Us Courage…
It is melodic, with beautiful harmonizing, and (however one may quibble with the lyrics), deeply stirring .
The second moment begins ludicrously — two hefty men appear in tutus (Andre and Ben Langhorst). But they turn out to be two of the three assassins (the third is that count, Yusapoof, portrayed with appropriate villainy by Brian Bock.) Incredily, the three non-dancers in silly costumes turn a mock Russian ballet into both beautiful and chilling. How they accomplish this is almost as mystical as the sway that the infamous Mad Monk had on the last of the Romanovs.
Book & Lyrics by Jason Craig
Music by Dave Malloy
Directed by Ellie Heyman, choreographer by the Kuperman Brothers, scenic design by Carolyn Miraz, costume design by Katja Andreiev, lighting design by Mary Ellen Stebbens, sound design by Dan Moses Schreier and Joshua Reid
Cast:Damon Daunno as Beardo, Rolls Andre as Shack Man/Murderer, Shaye Troha as Shack Woman/Woman, Liz Leimkuhler as Shack Sister/Woman, Alex Highsmith as Tsarista, Willy Appelman as Tsar, Brian Bock as Yusapoof, Ben Langhorst as person of the court/murderer.
Band: Blake Allen (viola), Ezra Gale (bass), Sarah Elizabeth Haines (violin), Sam Kulik (conductor/guitar), Susan Mandel (cello), Hajnal K. Pivnick (violin), and Charlotte Munn-Wood (violin alternate).
“Beardo” is set to run through March 5, 2017