No One Expects the Russian Revolution

Shotgun Players’ 2008 premiere of Beowulf: A Thousand Years of Baggage was such a resounding success—winning the Glickman Award for best play to premiere in the Bay Area that year—that it’s no wonder that Shotgun commissioned Beowulf playwright Jason Craig and composer Dave Malloy to write another song-play for the company. Beardo is another raucous musical celebration of a legendary badass, this time Grigori Rasputin, the mystic “Mad Monk” who advised the last of the Russian Tsars, Nicholas II, and his wife, the Tsaritsa Alexandra.

Anna Ishida in Beardo. Photo Credit: Pak Han

Shotgun artistic director Patrick Dooley gives the whole affair an impishly decadent staging that makes it a swell party while it lasts, even if it’ll be the first against the wall when the revolution comes. Whereas Craig also played the title role in Beowulf and Malloy played King Hrothgar, this time neither creator performs in the show. Malloy’s delightful musical numbers were a highlight of Beowulf and other projects such as Ten Red Hen’s Clown Bible, but his score for Beardo is impressively polished and versatile, played by a string quartet abetted by standup bass, acoustic and electric guitar and percussion.

Dressed in Russian peasant outfits, the musicians are partly hidden behind the trees of Lisa Clark’s dense forest set. When we enter, Beardo is lying on the ground with his arm down a hole, slowly writhing and gasping as if dazed and in pain. Once the show starts, a hilariously deadpan Josh Pollock enters as a peasant who lives in a nearby shack and asks if Beardo’s all right. “I have never seen a man with his hand in a hole for so long,” he says matter-of-factly. At first it’s unclear whether Beardo, starved and parched, is capable of answering, but he finally speaks up when the shack man points out that the hole after all is on his land. “This hole is a lack of land,” he says. “How can a lack of land be yours?”

Craig’s script is often very, very funny, never more so than in this first scene, when the shack man talks about being so poor that all they have is turns of phrase that they like to show off. Sarah Mitchell is priceless as the shack man’s wife, scowling at Beardo with a fixed, sidelong stare as she furiously peels a potato.

It takes a little while to warm to Beardo himself, played by Ashkon Davaran, apparently best known for some viral Giants fan video version of Journey’s “Don’t Stop Believin'” that I’ve never heard of till now. Most of the time he comes off just as a grubby, crazy homeless guy who says that he hears voices, particularly that of a personal god that lives in his head. But there’s something about his casual, blithe approach to his nonsensical mysticism that gets under your skin–the way he answers questions with questions, and the way he demands that people say thank you and then says with a flourish, “You. Are. Welcome!”

He’s compelling when he settles his hypnotic stare on people and works his hoodoo on them, abetted by a voiceover of a booming god-voice who says crazy things like “I’m a teeth dancer!” In fact, not to cheapen it or anything, but the gravelly insanity he projects is akin to the quality that’s fascinated people so much about Charlie Sheen’s public meltdown. He’s apparently a hit with the ladies as well with his satyr-like sexuality, because there’s nothing they like better than a smelly, disturbed hobo.

The only carry-over from the Beowulf cast, Anna Ishida has a forbidding stony-faced scowl as the Tsaritsa as she frets over her ailing son, but her haughtiness quickly turns to perplexity when Beardo comes barging in. “Mister, are you a cowboy?” she asks. “No, lady,” he replies. “I’m a wizard.” Kevin Clarke is marvelously funny as the timid and apologetic Tsar, and Juliet Heller gives a touching performance as their baby boy, with her face atop the tiny puppet body (with a swollen, glowing leg) as she manipulates its tiny arms. The Tsar’s court is all in red and black, in pancake makeup with red eye shadow and decadent costumes by Christine Crook.

Mitchell and Eleanor Reinholdt chatter gaily as aristocrats mooning over this shabby visitor.  Dave Garrett has a fine contemptuous sneer as a snobby count who takes an instant loathing to Beardo, and he has some hysterical scenes with Pollock and J.P. Gonzalez as courtiers who become his henchmen in a plot to do away with Beardo–which, if you know anything about the legendarily near-unkillable Rasputin, is no easy task.

Malloy and Craig have crafted some awfully amusing songs throughout the play, such as Beardo’s refrain about coming “from a shack in a field in a field in a shack” or the aristocrats singing “An outside man has come inside” as they watch Beardo and the Tsaritsa dance suggestively. Beardo holds court with all the ladies in an outrageously raunchy, hip-hop-tinged priapic celebration (this is not a show for the tiny tots) and sings a very funny little ditty on a ukulele. Most impressive is a beautiful, impassioned a cappella chorus from a sudden army of downtrodden peasants. There’s even a playful little ballet.

Some numbers such a folky plea to St. Peter seem to come out of nowhere, but that’s part of a larger issue with the script, which doesn’t quite come together into a coherent narrative. It jumps from point A to point J awfully quickly and leaves so many details vague that the show seems much more about personality and style than substance or message. The big choral number aside, the Russian Revolution seems to come out of nowhere–it’s meant to be funny that the Tsar doesn’t know what everyone’s so upset about, but we don’t know exactly either.

It’s helpful if you don’t think of the play as being about Rasputin per se, just a character inspired by him, lest you get caught up in historical inaccuracies and all the stuff left out. Indeed, the main character is never referred to as Rasputin, only as Beardo. As a matter of fact, nobody in the play has a name, as they’re not real people so much as storybook figures.

It’s not for all tastes, but I never tire of Craig’s playful use of language, with compound phrases such as “your delicate child-boy,” “my ear-door,” “this meal-meat is good” and other amusing wordplay: “My pow is about to get more powerful”; “This little shit poisoned me with poison.” Such almost childish turns of phrase accentuate the sly fairytale approach to historical figures of not quite a century ago, and the question of what it all adds up to is easy to put aside when it’s so damn much fun along the way.

Through May 1
Ashby Stage
1901 Ashby Ave.
Berkeley, CA

Beardo: Show #29 of 2011, attended March 26.

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