Regional Reviews: San Francisco/North Bay
Natasha, Pierre & The Great Comet of 1812
Also see Patrick's reviews of Gypsy, Ain't Too Proud: The Life and Times of The Temptations and Colonialism Is Terrible, but Phở Is Delicious
And what characters! Lotharios, demented elders, women of high virtue, women of easy virtue, troublemakers... At the heart of the show, true to the title, are the aforementioned Pierre, who spends his days reading and tippling, only occasionally venturing out, and Natasha (Jacqueline Dennis), a young woman of great beauty betrothed to the absent Andrey, who is off fighting the war. Natasha has come with her cousin Sonya (Veronica Renner) to Moscow for a visit to Natasha's godmother Marya (Michelle Ianiro) and to meet her prospective in-laws: Andrey's sister Mary (Danielle Cheiken) and their father, the rather loony Prince Bolkonsky (James Mayagoitia).
As one might expect with Tolstoy (the musical is adapted from Part 8 of "War and Peace"), things do not go well for Natasha or Pierre. Pierre seems to slip deeper and deeper into an existential malaise (at one point singing, "Did I squander my divinity?"), while Natasha falls under the spell of the roguish Anatole (Nick Rodrigues), who is–unbeknownst to her–already married. Circling around these two are an assortment of servants, friends and relations to gossip about the goings-on and generally interfere as a way of making life during wartime a bit more interesting.
The production is first-rate in every respect. The cast–each and every one–are wonderfully suited to their roles, with strong voices and tremendous acting chops. As the seen-it-all-and-tired-of-it Pierre, Albert Hodge brings a rich, resonant baritone, as well as a world-weary countenance. He may be resigned to his depression, but he never gives in to it, choosing instead to lose himself in the books he reads obsessively when his presence is not required elsewhere. Jacqueline Dennis plays Natasha with the perfect balance of youthful energy and optimism. As her days in Moscow pass, Dennis's eyes–so wide and curious–seem to dim as the world around Natasha slowly becomes more and more oppressive.
The rest of the cast are no less skilled. Mayagoitia is delightful as Andrey, but he really gets to cut loose when he's playing the dotty Old Prince Bolkonsky, with a powdered (literally–clouds of talc burst forth when it's touched) white wig and bent-over wobble of a walk. Christian Arteaga plays the role of Dolokhov, a good friend of Anatole, with undeniable relish and eyes that sparkle with a delightful combination of mirth and menace. Danielle Cheiken, as the "plain" Mary, is wondrous, with a pleading, almost eternally annoyed countenance that seems to express the suffering of duty.
The set by Bay Area veteran Nina Ball is designed to evoke a combination of a 19th century Russian dinner club and a 21st century night spot. With its gold thrust runway, emanating from a circle that encloses a piano and drum kit (part of the seven-piece orchestra), tiers rising up to alcoves for 10 audience members to sit, and cocktail tables and bars along the thrust, it's a marvelously elegant and immersive environment. Silver chandeliers add to the festive, upscale mood. Costumes by Jasmine Milan Williams are appropriately lush and festive, with lots of velvet and metallic embroidery. Weili Shi's lighting design draws attention to the action on stage but never to itself, which is exactly what it ought to do.
The production is co-directed by Shotgun Players founder Patrick Dooley and Erin Mei-Ling Stuart, who also serves as choreographer. Their collaboration has resulted in an opera that makes brilliant use of the elegant setting, and involves the audience to a high degree. As they have envisioned Natasha, Pierre & The Great Comet of 1812, there is only a very blurry line between audience and performers. If you go–and you should–prepare to be immersed in Tolstoy's world and to have a most enjoyable night at the theater.
Natasha, Pierre & The Great Comet of 1812 runs through January 15, 2023, at Shotgun Players, Ashby Stage, 1901 Ashby Avenue, Berkeley CA. Performances are Wednesdays and Thursdays at 7:00 p.m., Fridays and Saturdays at 8:00 p.m. and Sundays at 5:00 p.m. Tickets are $34-$70. For tickets and information, please visit www.shotgunplayers.org.