Consider it Hamilton for the skinny jean and Tsarist set.
But if the hip-hop musical is an earnest Broadway biopic depicting the early days of the Republic for $500 a seat, Beardo, now at a Lutheran church at the furthest edges of Brooklyn (as off-off-off-off Broadway as you can get without falling into New Jersey), is a surreal and absurdist retelling of story of Rasputin and his slow insinuation into the Romanov court, all told in the key of twee indie rock, a sort of Sufjan Stevens meets The Magnetic Fields.
Did I mention that it is over two and a half hours long?
If this sounds like a hard pass for even the most committed musical theater goers, reconsider: Beardo is near brilliant, played with pitch-perfect timing by the cast, particularly Damon Daunno, in a star-making turn (think of a goofily sweet Oscar Isaac) as the eponymous Beardo, a feat more impressive considering that Daunno was a late add to the cast after the previous lead, Kenyon Phillips, the of-the-moment It kid of the musical theater scene, dropped out.
It’s hard not to be skeptical. St. John’s Lutheran Church, in the Greenpoint neighborhood of Brooklyn, is a solemn place, with paint peeling off the walls and scaffolding rising to the ceiling of its transept. Tea lights line the center aisle. A sextet plays in one corner. With every draw of the cello string, audience members settle deeper into the pews.
A lugubrious evening appears to be in store. The first 15 minutes do little to dispel this notion, especially when we meet our hero stuck in a hole (and truthfully, although the show has been revised since it was first performed five years ago in San Francisco, this bit could use some sanding down).
This Rasputin—the name is never said, nor is that of Nicholas II, which keeps away the finger-wagging armchair historians screaming about the vast artistic license taken—isn’t some kind of prophet or mystic or multi-dimensional political chess player worming his way into the royal court.
Rather, he is like every hippie you meet at an outdoor rock concert: prone to long fits of rambling about the nature of truth and existence and love, forever picking up a guitar to pluck a new tune, and trying to bed every bipedal creature in sight. Also, a little crazy.
A seemingly literal screw in his brain occasionally comes loose, leading to further flights of fancy, an affliction that can only be solved by placing a slab of meat up to his ear.
Bits like that account for a large part of Beardo’s charm. Just when you think you are grounded in the narrative, the story takes off in a flight of fancy, landing some place through the looking glass. Such as: When the Tsar, played with delightful camp by comedian Willy Appelman, and the Tsarista have a feast presaging Beardo’s arrival that descends into an argument about whether or not they should be grateful to the land for its bounty and the hands that helped prepare the food, or whether they should just shut up and suck the juice from the marrow. (That her queenly rubric has been amended to rhyme with the person who serves me a Doppio Macchiatto in the morning is unexplained, and oddly hilarious.)
“You shouldn’t need to consider such stuff as kitchen staff and field farmers,” argues Yusapoof (yes, Yusapoof) the anti-Beardo who aims to prop up the depleted royal order. “When I sit down to a plate of meat, I like to picture the healthy beast running wild with vigor, thrusting into the wind, chest gleaming, veins thrumming through tight suede jacket and when it reaches my plate I taste my dominance over it.”
Or when Beardo comes to meet his inevitable doom and (spoiler alert!) Yusapoof plots his murder with two accomplices dressed as ballerinas, who despite poison, a bucket of water, and a gun are unable to pull off the deed.
The play, as should be clear by now, drips with double entendres and sexual energy, such that it is hard not to try to catch the next pun, if not in every scene. Which is fine—each of us chronicles the play in our own little mind recorders, Beardo tells us, playing back a different transcript later on.
If this is kept from falling into juvenilia, or just pure silliness, it is largely a credit to the tight direction from Ellie Heyman. Comedic stunts like those pulled here can grow tiresome, but they never do. It is impossible not to laugh.
There is little more to it than that. This is no allegory on the state of our nation, the failure of our politics, or the atomization of modern life (which is probably the musical theater we need).
It is pure pleasure, and doesn’t leave the audience with much to argue over on the way out the door. There aren’t even many real hard historical facts in it, of the kind that can be the Brussels sprouts to an evening of pure gravy.
“I will have an entire wiki wiki wiki wiki wiki wiki wiki Wikipedia page dedicated dedicated to my dick,” Beardo sings at one point, which sounds like something you remember to check up on online when you get home. Which of course I did. And in which I discovered, of course, there isn’t.
Beardo is at St. John’s Lutheran Church, 155 Milton St, Brooklyn, until March 5. Book tickets here.