It should come as no surprise to anyone familiar with Russian history that Rasputin is finally ready for his close-up. Indeed, the question that inevitably arises in “Beardo” — the funny, freewheeling musical presented by the Shotgun Players — is, “Why didn’t anyone think of this sooner?”
Written by Jason Craig (book and lyrics) and Dave Malloy (music), the show puts the “Mad Monk” of Russia at center stage. Commissioned by Shotgun and staged by artistic director Patrick Dooley, “Beardo” emerges as a theater piece with considerable appeal, even for audiences who only know Rasputin as the guy on the record-store logo.
Craig and Malloy loosely follow the outline of history, tracking the title character’s rise from humble beginnings to the halls of power.
From the first moment we see Rasputin (Ashkon Davaran), dressed in rags and lying prone in a field, he’s a magnetic hero — strange and mystical, “a very hairy visionary” with a song in his heart, a few magic tricks up his sleeve and the sex appeal of a rock star. The songs — backed by string quartet, double bass and percussion — add atmosphere and propel the story forward.
Dooley, who had a previous hit with Craig and Malloy’s “Beowulf: A Thousand Years of Baggage,” gives the show a vibrant, irreverent staging.
Lisa Clark’s set of wintry trees, dappled by Michael Palumbo’s lighting, serves as backdrop. And 10 actors, costumed by Christine Crook, play multiple roles from peasants to aristocracy.
Highlights include a grim banquet for the Tsar’s retinue, a magical scene in which Rasputin heals the ailing Prince and — parental advisory — a ribald Act I finale that morphs into a palace lovefest. Act 2 brings a lusty chorus, a ballet for assassins (choreography by Chris Black) and Rasputin’s transcendent demise.
Davaran plays the title role with just the right blend of goofiness and otherworldly glamour. Kevin Clarke’s Tsar, Anna Ishida’s Tsarista, Juliet Heller’s Prince and Dave Garrett’s Yusapoof make excellent contributions. Josh Pollock and J.P. Gonzalez shine as the nervous assassins.
Throughout, the show’s creators toy with the idea of Rasputin as celebrity — in one song, Daravan imagines having his own Wikipedia page — and they give their unlikely hero plenty of charisma to carry it off. At 2½ hours, the production could be trimmed; the first act runs long.
But “Beardo” is still more fun than Russian history has a right to be.
Presented by Shotgun Players
Where: Ashby Stage, 1901 Ashby Ave., Berkeley
When: 7 p.m. Wednesdays; 8 p.m. Thursdays-Saturdays; 5 p.m. Sundays; closes April 24
Tickets: $17 to $26
Contact: (510) 841-6500, www.shotgunplayers.org