A Comet Strikes! Dave Malloy and Rachel Chavkin Create 19th-Century Russia in Off-Broadway's Natasha, Pierre
By Michael Gioia
Dave Malloy and Rachel Chavkin, writer and director of Natasha, Pierre and the Great Comet of 1812, rip from the pages of "War and Peace" to recreate Russia 1812 in New York City.
What, exactly, inspired the eccentric world of 19th-century Russia encapsulated within the lavish, pop-up supper club Kazino, resurrected on W. 45th Street? "Dave…" director Rachel Chavkin said to her collaborator, "[do] you want to tell the Café Margarita story?"
Dave Malloy — composer, lyricist, and orchestrator as well as former title character of Off-Broadway's Natasha, Pierre and the Great Comet of 1812, the work inspired from a slice of the epic novel "War and Peace" by Leo Tolstoy — launched into a story about his trip to Russia a few years back.
"It's on this little side street in Moscow," he explained of the Russian watering hole. "I ended up stumbling upon it when I was traveling there two or three years ago. It's a very small, little club that was packed to the gills and has a classical trio — a piano, a violin, and viola. They're playing 'Flight of the Bumblebee' and things like that. Everyone there was drinking vodka and [eating] dumplings. Everyone had shakers on the table, and they were singing and clapping along. It was so crowded that I ended up sitting next to the viola player, so I was hearing all these harmony parts right next to my ear.
"When I had that experience," Malloy added, he thought, "I want to recreate this space in New York City."
Natasha, Pierre and the Great Comet of 1812, set amidst the French Invasion of Russia in 1812, began to take shape. Malloy, who read 'War and Peace' a handful of years back — simultaneously with his then-girlfriend, while he worked as a pianist on a cruise ship — was commissioned to write the piece, which would premiere at Ars Nova, the 99-seat venue on 54th Street that specializes in experimental theatre.
The 2012 Ars Nova engagement led to a summer run in downtown New York City's Meatpacking District — with double the space. Following its September 2013 close, the show traveled to Times Square, where it is currently housed through year's end and invites theatregoers to a world unlike any other in the Broadway theatre district: 1800s Moscow.
"The first thing I do for any project," confided Chavkin, "is go to the picture collection at the New York Library... You go up to the wonderful librarians and say, 'I'm interested in Moscow in 1812. Give me a folder for comets, and... give me some rock 'n' roll or Gypsy folders.'"
From there, Chavkin and set designer Mimi Lien created Kazino, the opulent environment in which actors engage with audience members to tell the tumultuous love affairs of newly-engaged Natasha Rostova, who is swept up by another man while awaiting her fiancé to return from war.
"It was figuring out what the 'games' are that help the room come to life," said Chavkin, who enlists her actors to take the audience on the journey.
"This setting is very appropriate," added Malloy. "You're in this room of 199 other people. You get to see how they're reacting to what they're seeing and how they're feeling. That feels very Tolstoy-ian."
(This feature appears in the November 2013 issue of Playbill. Playbill.com staff writer Michael Gioia's work also appears in the news, feature and video sections of Playbill.com as well as the pages of Playbill magazine. Follow him on Twitter at @PlaybillMichael.)
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