It's hard to put into words what it's like to witness Natasha, Pierre & The Great Comet of 1812 in person. You're sort of crashing the party just by turning up on their set. Don't expect anything you've ever seen before. The satirical opera -- as if that's a thing -- is chock full of jokes but also emotional and inspiring moments. Put plainly, It isn't your traditional dinner theater. I sought to get some additional insights from David Abeles, who stars as Pierre:
What a wild and wonderful experience. Show doesn't really do it justice. What drew you to it initially?
Abeles: I think my first experience was similar to most of our audience members'. I knew almost nothing going in and was just swept away. I'd never seen anything like it. Dave Malloy's score and libretto is so rich, complex and truthful, and Rachel Chavkin's direction and staging is engaging and playful, I was transported. Also, I just love the depth and humanity of Pierre, so the chance to dive into this gift of a role was obviously a big draw.
For the role of Pierre, you largely lurk in the shadows and come into your own in the latter portion of the play. Why's that so effective?
Abeles: Well, without giving too much away... Pierre is very much in the throes of a powerful existential crisis throughout much of our show, and it's not really until the latter portion of the play that events beyond his control basically propel him into action and into taking account of the things he finds important and meaningful. I would hope the most affecting thing about this long arc is seeing Pierre go through such a whirlwind of inner turmoil -- and finally surprise himself with a newfound outlook and a newfound humanity.
You demonstrate a rare talent for both theatrics and music, playing several different instruments along with the band during the show. Is it hard to stay in character and do it all at once?
Abeles: Actually, I think it's the opposite -- I find it easier to stay in character while playing the instruments. And I think this is especially true with the accordion, which I did have to learn for the show. I think Dave's writing for the accordion is just right for Pierre and feels so fitting -- it just feels like an instrument Pierre might play. Since I've played music from a young age, and have been in several actor/musician productions, I'm gratefully pretty comfortable behind an instrument and I love discovering the extra layers it can provide to exploring the character and the storytelling.
The choreography and staging takes up so much space I'd argue that the audience is really sitting on the stage. How does that make your job harder, and what's the effect for the show overall?
Abeles: I think it's one of the most brilliant and, equally, challenging aspects of the piece. It's a strange dichotomy because although the scope and the emotions are very heightened, the audience is all around you and close enough to touch at all times. So, the playing of the material has to have the urgency of life and death stakes, along with the nuance of playing moments naturalistically. For me, it's absolutely thrilling to have an audience so close that they are literally a part of the scene being played -- we get to truly share the experience and it's hugely rewarding.
This show is set 200 years ago in Moscow. Are there any universal lessons you hope the audience takes away?
Abeles: There are many -- and I hope each person is able to glean something personally meaningful from the show. I do, however, love a Tolstoy quotation that I believe is still posted outside of our tent: "We are asleep until we fall in love!"