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Signature Theatre Presents World-Premiere Play Within A Play

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A fourth-rate Russian theater troupe welcomes their audience in the world premiere of Brother Russia.
Scott Suchman
A fourth-rate Russian theater troupe welcomes their audience in the world premiere of Brother Russia.

Signature Theatre's newest offering, Brother Russia, is actually a play within a play. It opens in modern-day Siberia, with an amateur band of traveling performers who usually spin out rock-inspired adaptations of Russian classics. The actors are led by the old, grizzled, wheelchair-bound impresario "Brother Russia," portrayed by John Lescault.

"This particular night, rather than presenting Chekhov or Dostoevsky as they typically do, Brother Russia decides, because they're facing financial ruin, to present the story of my deluded life, my life as Rasputin," Lescault explains.

That's Rasputin, as in Grigori Yefimovich Rasputin: the Russian Orthodox mystic who some say helped bring down the Tsarist regime in 1917. Others say he was simply a religious quack.

Whatever the case, the reason Lescault refers to Brother Russia's "deluded life" is, records show Rasputin was murdered in 1916, and the acting troupe is performing in the present. Though legend does have it Rasputin actually never died.

As Brother Russia puts on his show, he needs someone to play the so-called "Mad Monk," so Lescault says he gets "Sasha, my stage manager, to play Rasputin, and we also meet Sophia, a gypsy who has joined our company just two days ago, and I associate her with Anastasia, and she takes on that role."

Anastasia is, of course, the daughter of Russia's final tsar, Nicholas II. And legend has it she never died, either! In Brother Russia's telling of the tale, she falls in love with Rasputin and over the course of the play, as Doug Kreeger -who portrays Sasha-slash-Rasputin - puts it, "He goes through a lot!" Especially for a guy who some believe was immortal!

"I get shot," Kreeger says. "I get dismembered. I get drowned... Poisoned... All sorts of wonderful and challenging things to play."

And the creative force behind all these "wonderful and challenging things to play" is writing duo Dana Rowe, who composed the music, and John Dempsey, who did the book and lyrics.

You might have caught two of their previous musicals, The Fix and The Witches of Eastwick, at Signature a few years back. In any case, the guys met while attending college at Ohio State University, and have been kicking around the idea of a Rasputin musical for a while now, partly inspired by a memorable encounter Dempsey had while living in a Russian neighborhood in Queens, N.Y.

"I would see this one particular old lady who every day would walk to the market, with her walker in front of her and her cart behind her, and get her groceries for the day, and then walk back," Dempsey remembers. "And it was probably about five blocks, but it took her about a half hour to get there and a half hour back. No matter the weather she did it every day."

One time, Dempsey noticed the lady needed help getting her cart up some stairs. So, he offered a hand.

"She was furious at me for offering help, and she was more furious at herself for accepting it," he says. "And I just thought that Russian attitude of carrying on with the business of life every day no matter what was just fascinating. And so that was something we'd talked about exploring in a musical somehow."

"Endurance," Rowe adds. "Keeping going no matter what the cost, and no matter how you feel. Life goes on!"

And the show goes on, too - as it must! And that's what actor John Lescault finds so beautiful about this show, depicting as it does this near-broke group of actors just trying to keep on going.

"I think [Rowe and Dempsey] are making the point that the theater will continue. Like Rasputin, it will continue. That we do have an innate story. And that we will stay, as the lyric goes, 'enthralled to the thrill.'"

And that, says Lescault, is why he does theater in the first place. To remain enthralled... from the rise of the curtain, to long after the stage lights have dimmed.


[Music: "Siberia" and "Brother Russia Presents" by Dana P. Rowe and John Dempsey from Brother Russia]

Photos: Brother Russia

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