More theatre should be like Natasha, Pierre & the Great Comet of 1812. This electro-pop opera is high-energy, creative, immersive, fun and, despite being an adaptation of War and Peace, utterly devoid of pretension.
The audience is seated at small tables with a plate of brown bread and dumplings and a bottle of vodka on each one. We are encouraged to eat and drink throughout the show (Brecht would have loved it!) The action happens all around us – there are musicians everywhere, actors move and sit amongst the audience and it is impossible not to be thoroughly engaged.
Pierre is a depressed, philosophical aristocrat married to the unfaithful Hélène. Natasha, our beautiful heroine, is newly engaged to Prince Andrey, who’s away at war. Natasha and her cousin Sonya go to Moscow, to stay with the “old-school” Marya. Natasha is forlorn, pining for Andrey, particularly after a terrible first encounter with Andrey’s looney father and sister…until she meets the dashing Anatole, Hélène’s brother. Anatole seduces Natasha and she finds herself torn between loving two men.
Composer/Librettist/Musical Director Dave Malloy (who also breaks your heart as Pierre) has done everything possible to keep the story clear and accessible, without ever pandering or underestimating the intelligence of the audience. Take, for instance, the brilliant (and catchy!) Prologue song:
You are at the opera
Gonna have to study up a little bit
If you wanna keep with the plot
Cuz it’s a complicated Russian novel
Everyone’s got nine different names
Then, like an ice-breaker game, the ensemble introduces all of the characters – “Sonya is good, Natasha is young and Andrey isn’t here” and so it continues until we’ve been introduced to all of the characters, major and minor. And lest there still be any confusion, we are all given an act-by-act synopsis of the play and a family tree.
Director Rachel Chavkin is equally dedicated to clarity. When Natasha first meets Andrey’s sister Mary, the two women awkwardly seat themselves at a table with a few audience members. They sing – switching back-and-forth between forced pleasantries to one another countered by their private thoughts and feelings about the other. Suddenly they leave the table and each stands at the opposite end of the room, as far as could possibly be from one another, physicalizing their feelings. Then before we know it, they are back at the table as though they had never left. Chavkin’s direction is filled with intelligent, deliberate choices. Everything is done for a reason – to bring clarity and insight into the story. Despite being submerged in the action occurring all around us, we are completely aware, at every moment, where our focus should be. It is some of the best direction I have seen.
There seem to be no limits to the talent of the 16-person ensemble. The acting is simultaneously sincere and entertaining, the singing voices perfectly suited to each role and the style of music and, if that were not enough, members of the cast will suddenly pull out a violin, guitar or accordion which they invariably play expertly.
The ever-present music, the unending vodka, the high caliber of performance, the creativity, the boisterous moments of group celebration paired with the most personal and devastating sadness – all of these pieces come together to make a beautifully Russian experience. It’s a story about love, and the ambiguity between the real thing and the illusion of it, to be sure, but it’s even more so about finding an acceptance of life – things don’t go the way we planned and life is full of sadness and hardships, as well as love and beauty, and we just have to embrace it all for what it is and find enlightenment wherever we can – be it in a fellow traveler or a great comet. Natasha, Pierre & the Great Comet of 1812 is a wonderfully creative, energizing theatrical experience that is not to be missed!