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Signature Theatre Brother Russia

By • Mar 22nd, 2012 • Category: Reviews
Brother Russia
Signature Theatre
Signature Theatre, Arlington, VA
Through April 15th
2:40 with one intermission
$73-$90, $30 one hour before curtain if not sold out
Reviewed March 18th, 2012

Grigori Yefimovich Rasputin — now there’s an intriguing central character for a musical. The lascivious monk was the sensational star in Romanoff Russia’s dying political melodrama. Prince Alexei, the heir to the throne, was a sickly hemophiliac. Czar Nicholas, Alexei’s father, was a futile dabbler. Alexei’s mother, the empress Alexandra, was a desperate creature snatching hope from ephemeral fads. The sinisterly charismatic Rasputin was the chosen craze during the final days of Czarist Russia. He seemed to have psychic powers that could stanch Alexei’s bleeding. He could calm Alexandra’s hysteria. He could buck up Nicholas’ fitful courage.

Rasputin is the protagonist of Brother Russia, a new musical that is receiving its premiere production at Signature Theater. To provide the necessary “boy meets girl — boy loses girl — boy gets girl” love interest we have Princess Anastasia — an historical character who throughout much of the 20th Century supposedly popped up here and there. According to legend she somehow escaped the Bolshevik massacre that put an end to the Russian royal family. In this fanciful drama she is cast as the sociopathic Rasputin’s main squeeze. 

Also, there’s a cameo performance by Baba Yaga, the beloved comic witch of Russian folklore, who lives in a shack perched atop a giant chicken leg. It is she, in slinky black dominatrix attire, who deflowers Rasputin, sets up his career in advanced lechery and gives him something like immortality.

A tentative benefit-of-the-doubt proposition works in favor of Brother Russia. Maybe all this Rasputin lore could work as the basis for a musical. Such a hope is quashed as playwright/lyricist John Dempsey and composer Dana Rowe’s Brother Russia sputters along for nearly three hours at Signature. 

For starters, the Rasputin drama is a play-within-a play. We meet a bedraggled company of contemporary Russian actors who are making their way from town to town, trying desperately to survive. They are an unpromising lot. Their repertoire includes a Rasputin musical.

The actors’ morale and energy are depleted. Their stagecraft gear, however, is tip-top. As outfitted by costume designer Kathleen Geldard, they look pretty sharp. Women are tarted up in well-fitted slutwear. One of the men has a flashy wardrobe of male slutwear, and the rest of the males have a respectable array of costume choices. As for the carnival-style strings of colored lights (designed by Colin K. Bills), maybe they are supposed to look tacky. But in fact they gleam and glimmer with art and sophistication.

Despite snappy production values, the stage action creeps along, narrated from time to time by the title character. Brother Russia claims to be none other than Rasputin himself. He is wheelchair bound. A bouncy young actor portrays Rasputin in the play within the play. A little confused? That’s because the character doubling is a little confusing. Suffice it to say that one character/actor is oldish, the other is youngish.

Slow denouement allows excessive time for reflection. When one thinks about it, Brother Russia reminiscent of any number of other theatrical endeavors. That would be fine if Dempsey and Rowe were getting inspiration and oomph from other artists. But, as it happens, the obvious comparisons are unflattering. Brother Russia comes off as mediocre when compared to sensational successes. The look and sound of the show recalls a catalogue of gritty, raunchy musicals — Cabaret, for example, or Chicago. There’s even a hint of Threepenny Opera, especially in a satirical song about the bracing nature of war.

The Brother Russia narrator is wearing a Che Guevara T-shirt. That brings to mind Evita, which is narrated by a snarky version of Che’s ghost. Eva Perón as a musical theater protagonist is charismatic in a sinister way. But her charisma and her equivocal morality are way, way more engaging than anything Rasputin has to offer in Brother Russia.

The unfavorable comparisons just keep coming. One scene reminded me of The Lower Depths, Maxim Gorky’s 1902 evocation of Russia’s lumpen proletariat. In the very last scene of Brother Russia, when a couple of actors trudge along pulling a cart, the image mirrors Mother Courage, Bertolt Brecht’s 1941 drama of grim survival. These kinds of ruminations invariably reflect poorly on Brother Russia.

In the Rasputin role, Doug Kreeger is well cast as a singer. He can belt out any number of powerful megalomaniacal arias. As an actor, Kreeger doesn’t work out so well. Sinister charisma doesn’t come easily to him. He’s more your Curly from Oklahoma or Joe Hardy from Damn Yankees type — wholesome, healthy libido devoid of sexual scheming.

John Lescault in the title role has a different, but equally awkward task. His job is to make an uninteresting character interesting. Brother Russia is a tedious explainer, self-obsessed, maniacal — the kind of guy to whom one eventually says something like, “Oh, look at the time! And I’ve got to go wash my hair! Bye.”

Making Lescault’s task extra hard is the fact that he’s stuck in a paraphernalia-encumbered wheel chair. In his final scene Lescault is sabotaged by writer John Dempsey’s embarrassing inability to wrap things up. Dempsey edges toward a conclusion, then backs off, edges toward an alternate conclusion only to back off again … etc, etc. Dempsey seems to want to end his show with significant insights into theater or life or … or … or something, anything, whatever. But nothing he tries quite works.

Signature director Eric Schaeffer enlivens his show with striking production details. In addition to the already mentioned costumes and lighting, the scenery, musical direction and sound are all handled interestingly. Schaeffer’s cast of nine actors (in addition to the two already mentioned) put all kinds of ingenuity into their efforts to make their characters engaging. Directorial and acting details, however, are accessories. They can enhance. But they can’t rescue. 

Several years ago I read a biography of Rasputin. I remember thinking, “Wow, what a guy! Whatever made him so attractive to women? And did he have genuine psychic powers? Or was he a total fraud?” Brother Russia doesn’t ask or answer these sorts of questions. But it does, amazingly, manage to squelch interest and curiosity.

Photo Gallery

A fourth-rate Russian theater troupe welcomes their audience John Lescault as the enthusiastically delirious 'Brother Russia'
A fourth-rate Russian theater troupe welcomes their audience
John Lescault as the enthusiastically delirious ‘Brother Russia’
Amy McWilliams (as Alexandra, the Tsarina of Russia) performs 'Smoke' Stephen Gregory Smith (front), Christopher Mueller and Erin Driscoll (background) enjoying 'The Good Life.'
Amy McWilliams (as Alexandra, the Tsarina of Russia) performs ‘Smoke’
Stephen Gregory Smith (front), Christopher Mueller and Erin Driscoll (background) enjoying ‘The Good Life.’
A young Grigori (Doug Kreeger, left) is welcomed into a new world The Tsar, Nicholas II (Russell Sunday) and a young Brother Russia (Doug Kreeger) sing of 'Brotherhood.'
A young Grigori (Doug Kreeger, left) is welcomed into a new world
The Tsar, Nicholas II (Russell Sunday) and a young Brother Russia (Doug Kreeger) sing of ‘Brotherhood.’
Natascia Diaz (as Anastasia) and Doug Kreeger (as Grigori Rasputin) make a connection Zoya (Tracy Lynn Olivera) serving 'Vodka' to a gathering of hopeless drunks
Natascia Diaz (as Anastasia) and Doug Kreeger (as Grigori Rasputin) make a connection
Zoya (Tracy Lynn Olivera) serving ‘Vodka’ to a gathering of hopeless drunks

Photos by Scott Suchman

Cast

  • Brother Russia: John Lescault
  • Sasha/Gridori: Doug Kreeger
  • Sofya/Anastasia: Natascia Diaz
  • Viktor Nicholas, et al: Russell Sunday
  • Lyubov Alexander et al: Amy McWilliams
  • Anton/Dimitri, et al: Kevin McAllister
  • Natalia/Zoya, et al: Tracy Lynn Olivera
  • Mikhail/Gapon, et al: Chrietopher Meuller
  • Yana/Witch et al: Rachel Zampelli
  • Sergi/Felix, et al: Stephen Gregory Smith
  • Bella/Dominika, et al: Erin Driscoll
  • Dance Captain: Stephen Gregory Smith
  • Understudies
    • Natalie/Zoya, Lubov/Alexndra: Nadine Zahr
    • Sofya/Anastasia/Yana/Witch, Bella/Dominika: Madeline Botteri

Musicians

  • Conductor/keyboard 1: Gabriel Mangiante
  • Reeds: Lee Lachman
  • Trombone: Mike Selover
  • Keyboard 2: Jenny Cartney
  • Guitar: Gerry Kunkel
  • Bass: Chris Chumsky
  • Drums: Lee Hinkle

Creative Team

  • Scenic Design: Misha Kachman
  • Costume Design: Kathleen Geldard
  • Lighting Design: Colin K. Bills
  • Sound Design: Matt Rowe
  • Assistant Director/Assistant Choreographer: Joe Barros
  • Production Stage Manager: Kerry Epstein
  • Director of Production: Michael D. Curry
  • Orchestrations: August Eriksmoen
  • Music Direction: Gabriel Mangiante
  • Choreography: Jodi Moccia
  • Director: Eric Schaeffer

Disclaimer: Signature Theatre provided two complimentary media tickets to ShowBizRadio for this review.

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lives in Arlington with his wife, daughter, son-in-law and two grandchildren. Before retiring last year at age 70, he was theater critic at the Seattle Post-Intelligencer for 27 years. Prior to that, he reviewed plays for the Philadelphia Bulletin, the Texas Observer and the Swarthmore College Phoenix. Non-reviewing journalistic jobs include writing for the Houston Chronicle, the San Juan (Puerto Rico) Star and El Mundo de San Juan. Think about it: most of the papers he worked for no longer exist. Maybe this internet gig has better longevity prospects.

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