The Signature Theatre brought the world premiere of the pop-rock musical “Brother Russia” to Arlington this week.
The slightly irreverent but comical play tells the story of Grigori Yefimovich Rasputin, the mystic accused of influencing the Russian monarchy in the early 20th century by mesmerizing by the czar and czarina.
His mystical healing powers brought him to the attention of Czar Nicholas, who asked his assistance to cure his son, Alexei, from hemophilia.
Later, as his sexual excesses and his influence over the monarchs became publicly known, he was assassinated by Russian nobles in 1916.
In other words, his life story makes great theater.
Brother Russia refers to a wheelchair-bound narrator played by veteran actor John Lescault, who mixes philosophy, humor and raucous comments to describe what is happening from one scene to the next.
“They say there’s no rest for the wicked,” Brother Russia says at one point. “There’s a sideways truth to those words.”
As the story progresses toward World War I, or what the actors call “The Great War,” Brother Russia introduces the war scenes by saying, “Like a gift from God, the most wonderful thing happened.”
What follows are scenes of death, deprivation and human tragedy.
The play can be slightly confusing at times. For example, two people play Rasputin.
Doug Kreeger plays “Grigori,” which refers to Grigori Rasputin while Brother Russia also plays Rasputin narrating his own life.
Grigori acts out the scenes of Rasputin’s life while Brother Russia explains them.
The play never allows the audience to forget it is a play. Several times the producers and actors interrupt the action to argue about the historical accuracy of the play and the quality of their own performance.
Brother Russia mixes his philosophy into the interruptions, at one point saying, “Time is like the curtain.”
The “curtain” refers to the end of the play.
“It’s a highly unusual concept for a play,” said Peter Eramo, publicist for the Signature Theatre.
No one can dispute the quality of the acting or the music.
The book and lyrics were written by John Dempsey and the music by Dana Rowe, the same people who wrote “The Witches of Eastwick.”
The voices were generally strong and professional, led by award-winning singer and actress Natascia Diaz, who plays Antastasia, the daughter of Czar Nicholas.
The play also recommends a first for the Signature Theatre. In its 22 seasons, Brother Russia is the fifth world premiere this season, more than any other previous year.
Brother Russia runs through April 15 at the Signature Theatre, 4200 Campbell Ave., Arlington.
Call: 703-820-9711, or visit signature-theatre.org.
Tickets range from $63 to $87, but discounts are available for students and rush seats.