Tuesday, February 21, 2017

Review: Beardo is Weird-o

By Michael Block 

Who says musical theater has to be perfectly commercial? If the intent is to make a work of art that's a little outside the box, there is certainly an audience seeking it. That's where Jason Craig and Dave Malloy's Beardo comes in. Presented by Pipeline Theatre Company at St. Johns Lutheran Church in Brooklyn, Beardo is a story of faith and sin, truth and deceit, and a whole lot of weird.
A man has his hand in a hole. He pulls out. He meets a Russian peasant and his family. The man, referred to as Beardo, begins to spew a narrative that destroys the family. He suddenly finds himself within the palace walls in St. Petersburg. He heals the royal son and instantly becomes revered, and slightly feared. He begins to change the way things are done as he has the ear of the Tsar and the intimacy of the Tsarista. And suddenly tsarism is under siege. Though he's never mentioned by name, this unspecified faith healer is Rasputin, a mysterious and troubled anti hero. Beardo is a dangerously evocative musical that is breaking the mold. There's no denying just how weird Beardo is. But there's just nothing out there like it. With words by Jason Craig and music by Dave Malloy, Beardo is an indie-folk-rock Russian fantasia. The text has a modern tongue dripping with vulgarity and filth. And that's what makes Beardo so beautifully weird. But it's not perfect. There are some flaws. A bunch. Some whiffs in the script. Is there room for trimming? Absolutely. The meat of the play happens with the royals but it just takes so long to get there. And that ending? Perhaps it’s best to chalk it up to taste. Beardo defies musical theater norms abundantly, one blistering one being bookending the show without the typical musical numbers. And that is fine, should they be earned. But that ending...There's certainly a commentary within but it strays so far from what had previously been seen that it forces you to scratch your head. It's so out there, the audience wasn't sure whether the blackout truly signified the end. That's not necessarily a good thing.
The Russian surrealistic musical could easily be equated to a southern gothic thriller. And director Ellie Heyman instilled that in her approach. It allowed the piece to somehow feel even more relevant than ever. Heyman's extraordinary direction had purposeful staging. Using an unconventional theater space can have its problems and limitations but Heyman tackled the challenge and overcame it with ease. To say it was daring is an understatement. With a scaffolding jungle and a bit of a raised platform area, the rundown church aesthetic worked wonders for the storytelling. Designed by Carolyn Mraz, the exploratory nature allowed a wonderment of possibility. Again, in the world of limitations, the lighting design by Mary Ellen Stebbins captured the evocative and seductive tone of the piece. Though it just looms over the stage for the entirety of the play, the glowing leg was haunting. Peasant chic and royal rags were at the forefront of Katja Andreiev's costume design. Think for a moment on just how difficult it could be to stage a play or musical in a church. The acoustics alone are a headache. Sound designers Dan Moses Schreier and Joshua Reid and the sound technicians solved the potential woes. And nothing beats that wall of sound during stellar Act I finale. With an orchestra almost solely of strings, an eerie dissonance was highlighted within Malloy's score.
photo by Suzi Sadler
It’s always exciting to see a cast truly embrace their character and have fun with their material. This company certainly had a blast. With a range of vocal stylings to fit the variance within the score, each character was fleshed out within a certain aesthetic. As the titular Beardo, Damon Daunno gave an otherworldly performance. Not only did he embrace Beardo but he made he come alive. Daunno gave the character a seductive hypnosis, casting a spell on anyone he interacted with. Whether fact or alternative fact, when he spewed his wealth of wisdom, you listened intently. Vocally, Daunno matched the folky gruffness of the character. Alex Highsmith takes on Tsarista, highlighting the character as the most grounded in the piece. There is certainly uncertainly and trepidation of this mysterious magic man on the part of Tsarista yet Highsmith finds the strength within the character. While she may not have been the strongest vocalist in the cast, she made up with her acting prowess, emoting through lyric. Willy Appelman’s Tsar was animated and uproarious. Bringing physical humor to the forefront of the role, Appelman often chewed the scenery without stopping the show. It was a smartly calculated comedic performance. While Yusapoof’s arc in Act I needed a little clarity, he becomes a key player as the story progresses. Brian Bock essentially steals the show in Act II with his Black Swan realness. Bock made a strong case for Jason Craig and Dave Malloy to create a spinoff solely for him and that outfit. The remainder of the ensemble did an impeccable job helping to add color to the world, the stand out being Liz Leimkuhler. Don’t be surprised if Leimkuhler gets a call to jump into that other Dave Malloy musical running in Manhattan.
Beardo is a beautiful mess of a musical that knows exactly what it is. And that’s what makes it, well, charming. If you take the show at face value, you’ll likely not get it. If you do a tad bit of research and allow yourself to embrace it for what it is, you’re bound to appreciate it. Embrace the weird. Your mind might be blown.