Inside job

Beardo's take on Rasputin reaches deep, fishes around, and comes up perfectly weird 

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Power of suggestion: The titular character in Beardo (Ashkon Davaran) shares a thought with the effete tsar (Kevin Clarke)
PHOTO BY PAK HAN

arts@sfbg.com

THEATER A man lies in the woods, his arm in a hole. A mystic? A mushroom hunter? A mad monk maybe? He's in tatters, grimy, seemingly unconscious, bearded.

Magnificently leafless tree trunks (courtesy of scenic designer Lisa Clark) rise ominously around the man, while nestled among them lurks a somewhat inconspicuous string quintet. Finally, the local peasant who owns the land (Josh Pollock) asks for some explanation. He brings the man home to his wife (Sarah Mitchell), who looks askance at the stranger as she shaves the evening's fare with a sharp knife. She soon finds herself inexorably charmed by the magnetic outsider as he breaks into a self-promotional song, inspiring the peasant to pound the kitchen table with a soft mallet and his wife to take knife to potato in the manner of a Puerto Rican güiro.

Those who thought Rasputin just sold records on Telegraph Avenue are in for a musical and cunningly skewed history lesson, in addition to a wholly agreeable evening. In the opening salvo of its 20th anniversary season, Shotgun Players hits a raucous, ribald, and consistently clever bull's eye with Beardo, the latest from Brooklyn-based Banana Bag & Bodice, creators of 2008's Beowulf: A Thousand Years of Baggage. Each detail of this exquisite production — from a pitch-perfect cast to the rich palette employed by composer Dave Malloy to Christine Crook's gorgeously layered, vibrantly crimson-marked costuming — serves an inspired reappraisal of madness and revolution in and beyond the never-named Romanov household.

Concepts of inside and outside percolate productively throughout Jason Craig's book and lyrics, as Beardo (Ashkon Davaran), guided by a resolute yet warped-sounding inner voice, penetrates the household of Imperial Russia's grief-stricken Tsarista (Anna Ishida) and her affably effete tsar-husband (Kevin Clarke). His way with their sickly child (Juliet Heller) has them deeply in his debt and enthralled. Meanwhile, Beardo shakes and shimmies behind competing, maybe complimentary, countenances: that of the mystic healer, and that of the debauched cowboy on one hell of a bender. A transcultural mashup of outlaw whimsy, class war, and the banalities of upper-class decadence take flight in some inspired set pieces too fresh to give away here, and a wonderfully orchestrated score.

Composer and musical director Dave Malloy, whose gifts for composition and drama have been growing apace since relocating to New York City (where his beautiful and rollicking venture Three Pianos at the New York Theatre Workshop recently won a well-deserved Obie), conjures a very convincing Russian cabaret atmosphere. Doses of Rachmaninoff and other authentic samplings strategically arise amid his brisk Weimar-esque rhythms, lilting melodies, and one fantastic choral arrangement — a startling convergence of roughly 40 "peasants" who suddenly erupt into song.

Shotgun's artistic director Patrick Dooley helms the production with a deft hand, his witty detailing and precise staging perfectly in sync with the loose and wild composure of writer Craig's sure, literate, post-punk poetics. The cast is uniformly terrific. As the hirsute healer and unlikely royal heartthrob, Davaran delivers — in a Wild West drawl reminiscent of a young Tom Waits crossed with John Huston — a performance that accomplishes the seemingly impossible: making utterly magnetic and finally sympathetic a preposterously unkempt and ridiculous antihero.

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