I filed into a pew at St. John’s Lutheran Church in Greenpoint to see Pipeline Theatre Company’s production of Beardo (running through March 5) and resorted to quiet church behavior. But ten minutes in, when the character Beardo flings a slice of lunchmeat on the church altar, a serious case of the church giggles set in.
The indie rock musical penned by Dave Malloy (Natasha, Pierre & the Great Comet of 1812) and Jason Craig doesn’t mention Rasputin, but follows the sexcapades of a zany peasant and his mystical influence over the last Tsar of the Russian empire.
The lewd content of the show, paired with the building’s need for cosmetic repairs, led me to believe that the church was not in operation—but on the contrary: I was surprised to learn that a worship service would take place the next morning.
The idea to set the musical in a church first came from the show’s set designer, Carolyn Mraz. With scenes taking place in the Russian court, the ornate structure of the cathedral space, built in 1891, is fitting. But while themes of spirituality and redemption are prevalent, so are themes of sex and immorality.
“The material itself is so disruptive and it didn’t feel like it should be presented in a traditional way,” says Ari Schrier, artistic director of Pipeline.
Pipeline searched for church spaces all across the borough of Brooklyn. In addition to laying out the company’s needs for lighting and sound systems, Schrier and producer Natalie Gershtein had to be fully transparent about the show’s racy themes with church councils.
“The last thing that we ever wanted was to do all this work, build a relationship with a church community, and then do anything to either offend anyone involved or put the project in jeopardy,” says Schrier.
Pastor Katrina Foster of St. John’s Lutheran Church in Greenpoint didn’t bat an eye when the company outlined the content of the musical, including the song about a giant penis.
“She was not phased at all,” laughs Gershtein. “We spoke the same language in terms of our expression and what statement we were trying to make with this show.”
Foster is a firm believer of bringing faith communities and art communities together. She and her wife were married at St. Clement’s Episcopal Church in Manhattan, a space that doubles as an Off-Broadway theatre venue. They exchanged their vows on the set of Viva Las Vegas.
Foster shared the script of Beardo with her church council and opened a discussion about the possibility of the musical being staged at St. John’s. The council—made up of members as young as 30 and as old as 90—welcomed the idea under two conditions: There could not be nudity or language taking the Lord’s name in vain. The writers willingly made a few tweaks to the script.
The church council was also active in overseeing the build-out of the set, which included three stories of scaffolding, a lighting plot, and a full sound system. Blocking was also taken into consideration with the congregation—the consecrated area of the high altar was off-limits for a sex scene that takes place in the show. Instead, it is staged on a table in the altar space.
“This is a church and there is a sense of piety of what is proper and what is not, and this pushes the boundary of that,” laughs Foster. “It has pushed my boundaries a bit.”
The boundaries go so far as to include a dance orgy in front of the church’s stained glass windows, and even a ballet routine executed by men in tutus twirling around the pulpit. Surprisingly, the congregants are happy to share their home.
“Rasputin was the spiritual guide for the Tsar’s family and our old, beautiful, quirky, and crumbly church is perfect for it,” says congregant Abbey Jasmine Rose.
The adult content of the show didn’t shock Rose—the dirty disco dancing scene happens to be her favorite bit. “The show tells an honest story about the nature and temptation of evil, and how one man managed to seduce and manipulate his way into power in Imperial Russia,” she says.
The production is ushering in a new era for the congregation, which started with a handful of members and has grown to a few dozen congregants in the last year since Foster arrived to the church.
The set for the show is a “foretaste of the feast to come,” says Foster, explaining that the church will also have scaffolding up later this year for a much-needed coat of paint.
And while the congregants have opened their home to the cast and crew, their own show must go on. To prepare for the church’s weekend worship schedule, the stage management crew strikes the dressing rooms to clear space for a community meal in the church’s fellowship hall. The team also re-sets candles, church paraments, and the cross in preparation for Sunday service.
Pipeline doesn’t pay the church for use of the space, but they plan to gift a sizeable donation to thank the community for sharing their home.
“It is an example of communities partnering and trying to help each other,” says Schrier. “It has been wonderful for Pipeline, and hopefully wonderful for the church.”
The community of North Brooklyn is also part of the partnership—the fire department, police department, and community council all played a role in issuing permits for the show’s sound system and the use of a power generator on Milton Street.
Fliers for the show hang in local businesses, and the theatre company has partnered with restaurants and bars to create a guide to Greenpoint for the ticket buyers. The car service Gett even offers ride discounts for theatregoers without access to the G-train.
“We at St. John’s want our church to be a resource for the community and place of creativity, and the entire Beardo team is bringing new life into the space in a theatrical way,” says Rose. “Keep bringing us theater, please!”
All images of Beardo by Suzi Sadler; Interior of St. John’s Lutheran by Allison Considine.