Beardo Review: Russia’s Rasputin via Great Comet’s Dave Malloy

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.

 

Beardo

Pipeline Theatre Company at St. John’s Lutheran Church

 

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).
Tickets: $25-$40.

“Beardo” is set to run through March 5, 2017

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Mata Hari and Secondary Dominance Reviews: Prototype Festival “Operas”

I once asked Luciano Pavarotti what “opera” means, a question that made him momentarily look lost. Opera in Italian literally means “work,” he replied, but you don’t need to define it. Farmers play opera to increase milk production, he told me. “Even cows understand opera.”

What would Pavarotti, and those milk cows, make of Prototype, which calls itself “the premier festival of opera-theatre and music-theatre”? Is that the same as opera? The festival, which runs through January 15, is in its fifth year, and is presenting seven full-length works. I went to two of them

 

Mata Hari

Click on any photo by Paula Court to see it enlarged

We first see Mata Hari in a French prison condemned to death for espionage. The most surprising aspect of her situation in this work is not that her jailer is a nun, Sister Leonide, who swears and smokes. It is that the title character, portrayed by Tina Mitchell, doesn’t sing. That seems unusual for an opera, which is what the creative team labels it, more or less: Composer Matt Marks calls “Mata Hari” in a program note “my first serious opera-theatre piece,” and Paul Peers, both the librettist and the director, writes that “my goal was to push the boundaries of the operatic form” (by which he means he includes “various technologies,” i.e. video.)

A non-singing Mata Hari makes sense thematically in their 90-minute work, since this “Mata Hari” offers a decidedly feminist spin on the woman most often depicted as a femme fatale — an exotic dancer and seductress turned cunning double agent. Here, she is a victim of the men in her life (hence, denied a voice.) We see her victimization from the opening, when the male characters, all dressed in identical military uniforms, strip her of her fanciful tiara and elegant dress, and leave her in nothing but a slip. (The image is striking, as are several other moments in the piece, primarily because of designer Lucrecia Briceno’s chiaroscuro lighting.)  Then in non-chronological flashbacks and in testimony before her interrogator, we learn of her abusive first marriage to a military captain who abandons her, and takes away their children, forcing her to take up dancing (and…mistressing?) to survive; the departure by the subsequent love of her life, the injured soldier Vadim; and the double-dealing and lechery of the French and German military men who recruit her. Treated abominably in prison, she reveals at the end a final and bitter long-ago betrayal.

The non-singing Mata Hari is also part of the composer’s eclectic musical approach, combining traditional arias both forceful and tender by classically trained singers (most notably Mary Mackenzie as the nun) with contemporary melodies by the jazz singer Tomas Cruz as Vadim, with a repertoire of avant-garde sounds from punk-rock to standard modern dissonance by the four-piece band (electric guitar, violin, piano and accordion)

I wish I could say all of this struck me as refreshingly innovative, but it would be easier to feel that way if Mata Hari hadn’t already been the subject of everything from Greta Garbo’s 1931 film (“Mata Hari”) to Paulo Coelho’s 2016 novel (“The Spy”)

 

Mati Hari is on stage at HERE through January 14.

 

 

Secondary Dominance

“Secondary Dominance” is a compelling example of my long-held belief that nearly any endeavor, no matter how awful it sounds in theory, can wind up wonderful if it’s done well enough by passionate, creative and talented people.

Sarah Small calls her piece a “multimedia concert in 13 micro movements.” It is an hour long, without a discernible plot or point, without even discernible words in English, and filled with enough familiar avant-garde tropes to keep your newly arrived hipster happy for months:

Lots and lots of videos — long shot video projections of mountains and waves, close-up videos of snakes and frogs, videos of naked people singing, including a really fat woman; and videos of the live performers as they perform in front of the screen.

An older couple posing for a series of tableaux-vivant typical of how young people view old people (in one the woman knits.)

A half-naked, bald bearded man in pancake makeup.

Three ballet dancers who sit down on the stage to take off their leg warmers and put on their ballet slippers.

Three other women attired alternatively in peasant dresses, bangles and flowers in their hair, or, like, Sarah Small herself, wearing comic hero style silver sneakers.

A clue to why this all works is in the title, which is a play on the phrase, secondary dominant, a musical term. The music is what matters in this piece, and the music is gorgeous. The combination of flute, cello, percussion, the harmonizing vocals, even the electronic sounds – music that, as the production puts it, “synthesizes genres from Balkan folk to contemporary chamber, industrial, renaissance, rock, rap, and punk” – is mesmerizing enough to justify (or at least excuse) all the visuals. It becomes a sonic adventure, a journey through dreamland.  I wouldn’t call “Secondary Dominance” the 21st century’s “Fantasia,” but that’s because the century is so young.

 

Secondary Dominance is on stage at HERE through January 14, 2017