11/1/2023 NATASHA, PIERRE, AND THE GREAT COMET OF 1812 Horizon Theatre
LETTERS FROM MOSCOW
To My Most Uncommon Daughter:
I trust this hasty letter finds you in the best of health and circumstances. I could not help thinking of you as I watched another musical without you. Set in 1812 Moscow, it was a time (and place) of letters, when family, friends, and even casual acquaintances communicated in letters, one of which fell into my lap from a cast member. Naturally, I must now communicate to you (and all of my public readers) via an open letter disguising my reactions in the manner of an epistolary review, as a letter to you, my precious daughter who is in my thoughts every minute of every day.
To be clear, Natasha, Pierre, and the Great Comet of 1812 is one of the most extraordinary productions I have experienced. Interactive, the audience is seated around the set, in seating both prosaically traditional and exquisitely period. There is a bar around which some of the audience is seated, there are platforms
above behind and amidst audience, and at all times the cast is mere inches from our faces, hence the sharing of letters and atmosphere and breath and passion. But not vodka, though vodka (in the forms of Black Russians, White Russians, and simple shots) was readily (if not cheaply) available from the concession purveyors.
This play is based on a brief 70-page portion of Tolstoy’s War and Peace, making it less than 0.5% of the total story. We are plunged into the social world of the Moscow privileged class. The cream of Russian youth, peasant and aristocrat alike, are off fighting Napoleon. As the song reminds us, “There’s a war going on somewhere out there, and Andrey isn’t here.” Because this is a world of letters and gossip, let me give you a sense of it:
The Countess Natalya Rostova (aka “Natasha”) is Andrey’s beloved fiancée, and she pines for his letters until his return from the war. She is rejected by Andrey’s father (old Prince Bolkonsky) and sister (the plain and unhappy Mary Bolkanskaya). One evening, Natasha is taken to the opera in the company of her Godmother Marya Dmitrievna and her cousin (and dearest companion) Sonya Rostova. There, she sees Hélène Bezukhova , the wife of her friend Pierre Bezukhov, in the company of another man, Fedya Dolokhov. She also meets Anatole Kuragin, brother to Hélène, and is immediately smitten with Anatole’s roguish good looks.
If you are at sea over this explosion of names and relations, I attach at the end of this correspondence a chart showing how everyone is related, involved, or connected. Since Russian novels are notoriously dense, with characters having a plethora of names, I count on the chart to keep your head above water.
Suffice it to say, few people know what has been confided to me, that Anatole Kuragin has a wife, a seduced polish girl forced into marriage by her angry father. But Anatole is hot, content to spend his life and money on women and wine.
I have only given you the set up. I leave the what-happens-next to your own discovery, whether by a production nearer to you, or by listening to the score on whatever modern device you choose for such entertainments. As a taste, the remainder of this sung-through show, operatic in emotions and scope but not in style (tending more towards a Pop/Folk/Techno/Broadway amalgam), we follow Anatole’s efforts to elope with Natasha, Pierre’s efforts to thwart him, Natasha’s efforts to be with whom she loves, and Andrey’s efforts to survive Natasha’s betrayal. It all culminates with a highly energized troika chase accompanied by throbbing bass, rhythmic melody, and the heavenly harbinger that is the titular comet.
To say this show left me breathless would be an understatement. The confrontation between innocence and passion, the disconnect between dashing romantic men and their dissipated and coldly debauched hearts, the existential depression of a husband abandoned by an unloved and unloving (even sluttish) wife. (“Is this how I die?” “How can one remain moral in an essentially immoral world?”). These are all motifs common to Tolstoy, to other 19th-Centrury Russian artists, and to this production.
We are left with a happy(ish) conclusion, though what happens next to these characters in the original novel is as compelling as anything here. Perhaps my next letter will be rife with incident from Tolstoy’s tome, and the eventual fates of Pierre and Natasha and Anatole and Hélène and Andrey and Sonya and all the others. Suffice to say, this musical left me curious as to “what happens next” and may actually drive me back to the novel, which I confess I have never read.
But this musical more often than not pulls us into group celebrations and dances and revels and musical diversions – yes the accompanists are in the cast and interact with us as often as do the actors. We are agog at the audacity of the seducer, the naivete of the seduced, the petulance of the old, the wisdom of the young, the honesty and constancy of friends, the impulsiveness that leads to elopements and duels and betrayals and abandonments.
Scenic Designers Isabel and Moriah Curley-Clay have created a space that accommodates audience and cast and musicians, that allows director Heidi McKerley ample lanes to get characters from one extreme corner of the space to its diametric opposite with the briefest of transits, that allows Musical Director Holt McCarley to keep musicians and singers in tune and in rhythm even as they are scattered throughout the room, that allows Lighting Designer Mary Parker expertly focus our attention wherever it is needed (even if that focus is behind us, inches from our faces, are in far flung corners of the room), that allows choreography (by Ms. McKerley and Jeff McKerley) that constantly moves with high octane without endangering us witnesses with high kicks and seemingly out-of-control whirling dervishesque steps, that allows Costume Designer Dr. L. Nyrobi N. Moss to create ensembles that bespeak wealth and privilege and 19th-century Russia.
And with ensemble work like this, it is impossible, even pointless, to find the best – no one is not up to the efforts of the others, Leading actors Alexandria Joy (Natasha), Daniel Burns (Pierre), Janine Ayn (Hélène), and Jordan Patrick (Anatole) generously share time and space and interaction with “minor” characters played by Jill Hames (Marya – understudying for Terry Burrell), Anna Dvorak (Sonya), Jeff McKerley (Bolkonsky), Hayden Rowe (Andrey), Terrence J. Smith (Dolokhov), and Skyler Brown (Balaga). I also must toss congratulatory bouquets to the orchestra, Alyssa Easterly (Guitar – and she who delivered a letter to my eager hands), Molly Ann Tucker (Clarinet), Miro Gomez and Ruth Mehari (Cello), Eric Nabeth (Accordion), Eden Mew (Percussion), Marissa Romanoff (Viola) and seemingly everyone on keyboards scattered throughout the space.
This was one of those shows for which I truly missed your company, your wisdom, your enthusiasm, our shared experience. The letter delivered to me by the young guitarist certainly echoes my own thoughts. How did she know?
Though miles may part us and circumstances may keep us apart, your presence remains vivid in my thoughts and my heart. I eagerly await the day when we can sit together again, share stories and laughter, and bask in the promise of a bright and harmonious future. … May you remain safe, in good health, and filled with hope for a world that holds the promise of better days again.
With the warmest of paternal regards,
Your Loving Father
-- Brad Rudy (BKRudy@aol.com #HorizonTheatre #htcGreatComet)