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It’s a bold move, commissioning a new musical. It’s a bolder move still to accept that commission and decide to write something completely original, rather than adapting some tried-and-true property. And it is more or less insanely bold to take that opportunity to write an entirely original tuner about everybody’s favorite wild-eyed Russian mystic—that’s right, a Rasputin musical. (Cue the “I’m Not Dead Yet” jokes.) So let no one suggest that Brother Russia—a smoldering train wreck of a show now in its world-premiere production at Arlington’s Signature Theatre—is the sort of thing that happens when theatermakers play it safe.
John Dempsey and Dana Rowe have done anything but. They’ve taken one of modern history’s more colorful eccentrics, bundled him up in a show-within-a-show conceit, imagined that show as performed by a motley modern-day band of down-at-heel Siberian gypsy punks, and set the whole business to a driving rock score.
The look? Gothy-garish, with lots of fur and eyeliner. The sound? Solid, which you’d expect. (The ensemble is mostly Signature stalwarts, including Stephen Gregory Smith, Tracy Lynn Olivera, and Erin Driscoll.) And the point? Anyone’s guess.
In the tale those players tell, book-writer Dempsey invents a sad-sack history for Rasputin (a fine Doug Kreeger), who loses a little brother to a raging river, gets banished by his grieving parents for letting it happen, then wanders in the Siberian woods until he’s raped in an unholy midnight ritual by Baba Yaga, the famous hag of forest folklore. (I am not making any of this up.)
He learns the ways of faith healing from a couple of itinerant charlatans, builds a reputation on the rural circuit, then makes his way to St. Petersburg, where the Tsarevich Alexei (so he’s heard) lies ill. And it’s in that imperial capital, after his charisma and his cons have ingratiated him with the Romanovs, that he meets and falls in love with Anastasia (Natascia Diaz), youngest of the Tsar’s daught…—wait, what?
Right, that’s more or less where things break down in the show, too, with one member of the troupe throwing up his hands in disgust and the company’s leader—John Lescault, playing a doddering-impresario character who, oh, right, thinks he’s actually Rasputin—protesting that a good story told rousingly for an eager audience matters more than any trifling considerations about the truth. (Paging Mike Daisey.) Truth, hell: Mere plausibility goes to hell so fast in Brother Russia that you suspect the writers got two-thirds of the way through and realized that the only way to rescue their tale from its own preposterousness was to tack on a framing device and call the nonsense out.
There’s some more faff, eventually, about how a stage hero’s nightly death is a kind of immortality analogous to that which Rasputin may or may not have been granted in that first-act sexual assault, and then the traveling players (most of them) shoulder their weary loads and move on down the road to the next gig.
So, to sum up: Given a shot at musicalizing the eye-poppingly odd true story of a Siberian peasant who rose to hold mystical sway over one of the world’s most powerful monarchs—a man credited with supernatural powers up to and including the ability to cheat death—Dempsey and Rowe have turned in a story about a wounded good guy driven bad by a cruel, cruel world only to be redeemed by the love of a beautiful princess. But wait! That’s just the surface. What they’re really bringing us, as that show-must-go-on summing-up makes clear, is a story that’s actually about what a noble thing it is to make theater, about the indomitability of actors in the face of audiences who may not always care.
Count me among that last lot: Brother Russia is a stylish heap of hooey that doesn’t have the first idea what it wants to be, an exercise in tail-chasing so loud and so loopily miscalibrated that it’s almost entertaining just to watch it go speeding off the rails.