The collapse of imperial Russia may be associated with a lot of unpleasant things, including the slaughter of the Russian army at Tannenberg and the assassination of a clueless autocrat in the presence of his doomed family. It is not, as a rule, associated with song-and-dance numbers. But singing and dancing, along with a little good-natured humping, are just a few of the unlikely elements you'll find in Beardo, the gleefully inventive new musical now playing at the Ashby Stage in Berkeley.
Created by playwright Jason Craig and composer Dave Malloy — the team responsible for 2008's Beowulf: A Thousand Years of Baggage — Beardo is ambitious, tuneful, and mind-blowingly weird. It's the most fun I've had at a Bay Area show since Thrillpeddlers began digging up old musicals by the Cockettes, and it serves as a fantastic kickoff to Shotgun Players' 20th anniversary season.
If you know even the barest details about the biography of everyone's favorite mad monk, Beardo should offer almost no surprises in terms of story. It's the telling that will throw you for a loop. We first encounter Rasputin (Ashkon Davaran) — who goes by "Beardo" throughout the play — as a peasant who happens to be a mystic, or possibly just a con man. "I see visions and shit," he explains. "It's part of my deal."
The year is 1905. Rasputin wanders into the court of Tsar Nicholas II (Kevin Clarke), an incompetent monarch with a kittenish wife, the Tsarina Alexandra (Anna Ishida), whom everyone calls "the Tsarista." The tsar's court instantly recognizes this "very hairy visionary" as "an outside man looking in." But Alexandra wants to see whether the holy man can heal her son, the "delicate child boy" Alexei (Juliet Heller). Rasputin works wonders with the kid, winning the Tsarista's trust. From there, he charms the rest of the court, promulgating an unorthodox approach to sin and repentance while exhibiting a talent for getting Russian noblewomen into the sack. (If you expect a musical about Rasputin to contain an entire number about his legendarily massive wang, you will not go home disappointed.)
Every aspect of the production is outstanding, beginning with Patrick Dooley's direction. He creates an atmosphere of freewheeling invention, giving his actors and his technical crew plenty of opportunities to show their stuff. As a result, the show thrums with creative energy. Malloy's eclectic, densely textured score, performed by an excellent string quintet, includes echoes of Tuvan cowboy music, Patsy Cline, and Prince, with a little bit of Borodin and Prokofiev thrown in. He even offers up a surprisingly somber choral piece performed by more than three dozen peasants — a brief interval of serious historical context between the second and third acts. Gorgeous as it may be from a musical standpoint, this was the one moment in the show when I grew worried. Would the forces of revolutionary earnestness overcome the zany decadence of the palace? And if so, would I secretly hope that decadence might win? Fortunately, the third act never devolves into humorless agitprop; the choral interlude is just a quick reminder that, while Rasputin hopped from one bed to the next, other peasants undertook a very different kind of subversion, with far more lasting effects.
The book and lyrics, both by Craig, brim with quirky, droll wordplay that only occasionally gets too cute. He's especially good when using repetition for off-the-wall laughs. At one point, Rasputin reminisces about "my field shack, back when I used to live in a shack in a field." Lisa Clark's set — essentially a stand of barren trees — is perfect for a story that, while taking place mostly in a palace, never quite escapes the harsh forest landscape in which it begins. And Christine Crook's costumes are at their best in the second act, when the court sits at a long, ornate table literally held up by two long-suffering servants. I loved the fact that, in her world, the Russian nobility favors gold lamé tights (though I'm not so sure about the heavy emphasis on tutus in act three).
The actors are clearly having a ball. Davaran manages to carry the show as a wild-eyed, charismatic dude who can freak people out even when he's seducing them. Clarke's tsar is lovably ineffectual, and Ishida radiates with comic levels of sexual frustration as the tsarista. Among the mostly top-notch supporting players, Dave Garrett is a pleasure to watch as petty nobleman Yusapoof, and Josh Pollock is a deadpan delight in multiple roles.
"I am already a piece of fiction," Rasputin observes near play's end. The outlandish contemporary accounts of his murder — all of which portray him as hardly less killable than Michael Myers or Freddy Krueger — have been discounted by modern forensic analysis, which suggests that Rasputin died not from poisoning or drowning, but from a gunshot wound to the head. (A widely circulated theory places the gun in the hand of a British spy named Oswald Rayner.) Still, Rasputin was enough of a living legend that even his archenemies saw no need to remember his final moments as conventionally mortal. That's because everyone, at some level, respects a good liar, whether he's a pansexual monk or a playwright just making shit up. And that's why, at the end of Beardo, the audience members jumped to their feet and cheered for an audacious lie extremely well told.