Arts & Events

Eye from the Aisle: East Bay Theatre and More—BEARDO a song of a Dionysiac mystic

By John A. McMullen II
Tuesday April 05, 2011 - 06:40:00 PM
Ashkon Davaran
Pak Han
Ashkon Davaran
Anna Ishida
Pak Han
Anna Ishida

Mystics, prophets, and seers often move kings and empires. Think of Daniel, think of Joseph; then think of Rasputin. We stand outside the stories that vaunt their deeds and read and hear them as tales of the hero—or rascal. BEARDO is a look into the mind of that hedonist mystic Rasputin, who most Westerners may think of as the charlatan who beguiled the Tsarina and was part of thecause of the revolution.  

Beardo at Shotgun Players is a funny, quirky, work of art. Jason Craig writes in simple dialogue full of earthy poetry like Sam Shepherd wrote in his early mythic. Craig’s lyrics are simple, often hysterically funny, and versatile to fit the variety of music. Dave Malloy’s original compositions is from different genres which is the formulaBrecht used.  

Be warned—or be regaled— that it is full of bawdy, erotic, expletive humor, and graphic portrayals of sex and violence, just as we might imagine post-feudal Russia and its indulgent, self-absorbed Court. 

Act one starts like a Russian folk tale. When we enter the theatre, a dirty, bearded beggar lies face-up and motionless in a field full of forty barren white birches with his arm in a hole—for the entre half hour pre-set. The man who lives in the shack in the field and owns the land comes to see how he is, and offers him hospitality. Our Beardo has had a vision, a visitation, a little something in his head--whether God, the Devil, or an aneurysm--that gives him charisma and hypnotic powers. He can impart relaxation, release, confidence and faith to those who will give in to his charms—and that could easily include the wife of his host.  

Act two is in the opulent court of Nicholas and Alexandra and Christine Crook’s costumes are more decorated and delightful than a Faberge egg. The Outside Man comes Inside through the Open Door, and nobody knows what to make of him. In a first miracle of calming and healing the hemophiliac Royal Prince toddler (with Juliet Heller as the Delicate Boy Child), engaging puppetry and poetry combine to start the rising action and to foreshadow Beardo’s doom. The court of the Tsar was exotic when it came to sexual escapades (think of Catherine the Great), so our Dionysiac Beardo’s sexual Svengali method fits tightly. 

It quickly moves into Beardo’s seducing the entire court, and with the erotic choreography of Chris Black he soon has them literally eating out of his hand. Ordinarily, sex on stage is silly; when Beardo dances with the Tsarista (Anna Ishida) or the Shackman’s Wife (Sarah Mitchell), it changes the barometric pressure in the room. The second act culminates in a Court orgy that would make Bob Fosse proud and redefines the dance as audience-aphrodisiac; they cap it with an homage to “Boogie Nights.” It brings back memories of “Dionysus ’69” and Julian Beck.  

Songs range from country to opera, from Russian folks songs to torch songs. Our lead (and other players) pickup a guitar and a microphone descends from above, while the others accompany with improvised percussion. The music is accompanied and supported by a superior string quintet. Brendan West’s Expressionistic sound design provides cues and clues to the churning in our anti-hero’s brain. 


Shotgun is fortunate to have found the right actor to play the lead, a tricky, tricky part. Swarthy, hirsute Ashkon Davaran makes us believe and has the musical talent to rock us into rapturous faith. (He is the fan-atic from the YouTube video about the Giants’ World Series run, “Ashkon: Don’t Stop Believing” 


In fact, the entire cast is flawless. The deadpan delivery of Josh Pollock as the Shackman brings out the humor that in other hands could be tedious; it’s like that for most great works from Shakespeare to Shaw to Mamet—it’s in the delivery that it shines or fizzles. Anna Ishida as Tsarista (i.e., tsarina, queen) sizzles with sexuality and a very impressive vocal range that includes a high belt and wondrous control; her arc from depressed and put-upon foreign queen to regal and rebellious sovereign is award-worthy. Kevin Clarke as the milquetoast Tsar infuses his role with effortless comedy. Dave Garrett as the officious, abusive Count gives us a deliciously snobbish and impervious Machiavel to hate; it’s an impressive counterpoint to his Menelaus in last summer’s “Salt Plays: IN THE WOUND” at John Hinkel Park. Every actor supports the effort and is hip to this composite musical genre, right down to the booming Russian operatic chorus out of “Boris Gudunov” or an Eisenstein flick. 

At two and a half hours with one intermission and a five minute “talk amongst yourselves” break, I wasn’t ever bored, always anticipating the next turn. Craig’s humor and irreverence makes it accessible for us rather than put it in some far off land a century past; Beardo speaks in a farmland Mid-west accent with simple repetition and expressions that tickle the ear.  

The often-rewritten third act, with the death of Beardo, seems almost an epilogue. It doubles down on wacky irreverence and brings out the tutus—whether as metaphor or send-up or both. But it does not have the verve and the music of what’s gone before. The music is repetitive and recitative-like, and seems improvised and atonal rather than the previous engaging rhythms and melodies. The end-story is fulfilling, though, and it is an inventive telling of the last days of the Romanovs and their prophet. 

With Artistic Director Patrick Dooley’s collaborative directing, the staging is impeccable and fluid and there is nary a visually boring moment. Bringing this much talent together and pointing them in the right directions without interfering is the mark of an experienced, first-class director. 

Beardo may be for a hip audience, but that’s what Shotgun caters to, and is another feather in their cap for bringing delightful and innovative musicals to the theatre across from the Ashby Bart. It’s not just happenstance that the title rhymes with weirdo. Perhaps less polished than “Beowulf” and “God’s Ear”, but still absorbing, significant and funny as hell—if you like this sort of fare, I recommend you spend your hard-earned and increasingly limited lucre on Beardo. 


Presented by Shotgun Players through April 24 

At Ashby Stage, 1901 Ashby Ave., Berkeley (at Martin Luther King Jr. Way) across from Ashby BART 


Book & lyrics by Jason Craig, original music by Dave Malloy, directed by Patrick Dooley 

Produced by Bonnie Stiles and Tami White; Kristoffer Barrera — Sound Board Op; Chris Black — Choreography; Lisa Clark — Set Designer; Jason Craig — Book & Lyrics; Christine Crook — Costume Design; Tunuviel Luv — Properties Design; Michael Palumbo — Light Design; Brendan West — Sound Designer. 

WITH: Kevin Clarke, Ashkon Davaran, Dave Garrett, J.P. Gonzalez, Juliet Heller, Anna Ishida, Sarah Mitchell, Josh Pollock, Eleanor Reinholdt 

MUSICIANS: Gael Alcock, Jo Gray, Jessica Ling, Charles Montague, Olive Mitra 


Beardo, Shotgun Players, Eye from the Aisle, East Bay, Theatre review