When Andrew Abrams saw one of the first productions of Natasha, Pierre & the Great Comet of 1812 in 2013, his notion of what makes great theater changed. The UW-Madison theater graduate, living in New York City at the time, attended a production staged at Kazino, a large tent erected on a vacant lot in the city’s Meatpacking District.
The idea of interactive theater that enmeshed audiences didn’t initially appeal to him. “But I left captivated because it was so immersive and the music was so neat,” Abrams says. “I knew I wanted to do this show some day.”
Abrams has gotten his wish. Capital City Theatre is mounting its own production of the play June 3-12, with Abrams directing.
This is the Midwest premiere of the work by Grammy-nominated musician and writer Dave Malloy and will take place in The Loft at Four Winds Farm, a working farm at 5735 Adams Road, Fitchburg. Restoration of the barn began in 2017 and was completed three years later, with new windows and siding, an elevator, a kitchen, and accessible entrances and rest rooms. It’s rented out as a space for weddings, meetings, classes and other events.
This is the barn’s first theatrical production and the troupe’s first time performing in a barn. “The hardest part for us is that we have never before performed outside a theater and had to bring in everything from tables to lighting trusses,” Abrams says. Cast and crew amounted to 90-some persons.
But it’s a perfect site for recreating a raucous 19th century Russian tavern like Abrams first experienced at Kazino.
The story, adapted from a section of Leo Tolstoy’s War and Peace, focuses on the love affair between Natasha (Miyuki Miyagi) and Anatole (Charlie Tingen), while Pierre (Travis Leland), a friend to both, searches in vain for the meaning of life. It’s a love story as well as a treatise on humankind, Abrams says.
“The play takes place during a particularly decadent period in Moscow when the citizens felt the War of 1812 would never touch them, but it eventually does,” Abrams says. The moral is “that good people always triumph.”
This production, in the works for three years, is a fully sung-through musical; there is only one line of spoken dialogue. The music merges Russian folk melodies with indie rock, show tunes and some electronic dance music. Most of the actors play musical instruments as part of their roles.
But the Four Winds Farm event center’s wide open floor plan allows for two large platforms at either end of the room, with a circular platform in the middle surrounded by tables at which audience members can eat Russian-style tea cookies and choose from beer, wine and Moscow mules from a cash bar during the performances. The audience will be seated in the middle of the action.
“This is a fully immersive experience with actors and musicians located throughout the performance space,” says Abrams. “We ask ticket buyers if they want to engage with the actors during the performance, and then seat them according to their preference.”
Abrams never considered canceling the Russian play in the wake of Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine, but knew that some audience members would be sensitive to that fact. However he underscores that the play is not about present politics.
Maria Hanson, Capital City’s board president, is herself a Ukrainian refugee who in 1946, at age 2, fled her village near Lviv with her family to escape the post-World War II Soviet occupation.
“Our house was bombed when I was just two weeks old,” Hanson says. “My parents fled with only the clothes on their backs, carrying me and my sister as they crossed rivers and borders in the cold of March.” Her family made it to Hanover, Germany, living in a displaced persons’ camp for several years before departing for the United States in 1949 on the last refugee ship to sail from Europe.
“This is Putin’s war of aggression,” Hanson says. “I don’t equate Putin with the Russian people. They’re victims of his expert propaganda. The question is, will truth win out, and that’s as current today as it was in time in which this play takes place. Therein lies the heart of all great drama.”