If there is any consistency to be found in the unorthodox path to success of Natasha, Pierre and the Great Comet of 1812, it is not only that each remounting has played in a drastically different space, but that the audience of each iteration has either doubled or tripled in size. When the show opens at Cambridge’s American Repertory Theater on Dec 6th, Comet will play to its largest audience yet. In fact, the Loeb Drama Center has been drastically altered to recreate the kind of intimate, immersive experience that thrilled Off-Broadway audiences.
Comet premiered in New York at the 99-seat Ars Nova in 2012, and it was received so rapturously that producers began circling, eyeing a commercial run. The concept of the show is that the audience is seated at banquettes and tables, like at a Russian dinner club, with the action happening around them; during the Ars Nova run, carafes of vodka were placed on each table. The idea stemmed from composer Dave Malloy’s visit to Moscow’s Cafe Margarita, a place he describes as an “old world-feeling tavern with vodka and dumplings everywhere.” Rather than trying to fit the show into a standard space, a custom-made tent called Kazino—with around 275 seats—was constructed in the Meatpacking District in the Spring of 2013. That September, the tent was moved uptown to the Theater District. Comet was one of the hottest tickets in town, and it earned a record-breaking 11 Lucille Lortel Award nominations. A.R.T.’s Loeb Drama Center, with over 500 seats, is being transformed into its own Russian nightclub for what will most assuredly be the must-see event in Boston this winter.
Based on a 70-page dollop of Leo Tolstoy’s War and Peace, the play was conceived and written by Dave Malloy: “As someone who had been raised on movie musicals, I just instinctively thought of this as a perfect musical,” said Malloy. “The structure is perfectly suited to that form.” His score, for the record, is one of the best written for the stage in at least the last decade.
Director Rachel Chavkin—who has been on board since the beginning—is again at the helm of yet another Comet reinvention. Scenic designer Mimi Lien, who was awarded a 2015 MacArthur “Genius Grant,” is also reimagining her work for the Loeb. In terms of the cast, Lucas Steele will again reprise the role of Anatole, a performance for which he won a Lortel Award in 2014.
The size of the Loeb does present a unique set of challenges and a new set of problems for the creative team. “This is about continuing to figure out what needs to change and how it works in a much larger space,” said Chavkin. “We are shifting about half of the audience onto the stage. Of course, the goal is to ensure that wherever you are sitting in the Loeb that you have a really intimate and consistent access to the performers.”
I asked Malloy and Chavkin if this production might be a test of sorts to see how well the show plays in a larger space, and if its success might result in other larger productions. “Definitely, yeah” Chavkin said. “We are doing this with the hope of figuring that out.” Malloy agrees: “I would love to see the show go on to bigger things,” he said.
A larger space has also allowed for the possibility of a larger cast and more musicians, something that excites Malloy. The A.R.T. production will also welcome a sort of “roving quartet of musicians” that will be completely mobile. “It’s been such a thrill to go back to a score that I wrote two to three years ago and seeing what else I have to say about it,” Malloy said.
Comet will mark Malloy’s fourth time working with A.R.T., a relationship that he feels lucky to have. “I think Diane (Paulus) and I just kind of share an artistic vision,” he said. “I’m a huge fan of her work and I think that we both have this interest in going to a theater that deals with the relationship between the audience and the performers. So much of the work that comes through A.R.T. deals with that.”
But what of the vodka? The original Ars Nova production had carafes sitting on each table. At Kazino, audience members could drink and enjoy plates of seafood and caviar. Due to the borderline puritanical liquor laws of Massachusetts, there won’t be carafes, but drinking is still encouraged. “You will respectfully buy your beverage at the bar and bring it to your seat,” Chavkin said. “You’re very encouraged to do that.”
NATASHA, PIERRE AND THE GREAT COMET OF 1812. RUNS 12.6 – 1.3 AT LOEB DRAMA CENTER, 64 BRATTLE ST., CAMBRIDGE. AMERICANREPERTORYTHEATER.ORG