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'Natasha, Pierre & the Great Comet of 1812' a Grand Reunion for Dave Malloy and Shotgun Players

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Shotgun Players ensemble cast for the Great Comet of 1812 dancing onstage and leaping into the air with arms raised in stage jubilation
Shotgun Players ensemble cast for Natasha, Pierre & the Great Comet of 1812, by Dave Malloy (Benjamin Krantz)

It’s been a good year for composer and playsmith Dave Malloy reconnecting to the Bay Area. His chamber musical Octet had a Berkeley Rep run in the spring, and, last week, his highly-anticipated West Coast premiere of Natasha, Pierre & the Great Comet of 1812 opened for previews at the Ashby Stage. Once a Shotgun Players regular — having co-developed Beowulf, a Thousand Years of Baggage in 2008, and Beardo in 2011 — Malloy’s triumphal return feels almost pre-ordained.

Watch enough theatre in the Bay Area and you start to identify how one moment in an artist’s trajectory connects to another, years, sometimes decades down the line. In Great Comet are reverberations of Malloy’s earlier works: A riff on a literary manuscript of great importance (in this case, War and Peace), a reuniting with Imperial Russia, a rock-inflected score revealing the emotional layers of each character before they’re expressed in verse, and a playful quality infusing the action with an undercurrent of genial bonhomie, no matter its weight.

Jacqueline Dennis, a Black woman in a pink satin ballgown, stands centerstage in blue lighti, singing with her arms outstretched beneath a large chandelier
Jacqueline Dennis as Natasha in ‘Natasha, Pierre & the Great Comet of 1812,’ by Dave Malloy. (Benjamin Krantz)

This gaiety makes itself known even before the play begins. A Nina Ball-designed banquet table-cum-catwalk stretches from the stage into the center of the room, with the audience seated on either side. An enormous chandelier commands the space from above, a lone chair upholstered in red satin sits at one end of the runway, and the world’s smallest orchestra pit — containing just two musicians — peeks up from its center. (From here, music director Daniel Alley conducts and plays an upright piano while actors spin and prance all around.) Some audience members have come in costume (those who do get free drinks), jello shots are on the menu, and Russian electronica pumps through the sound system. It all adds up to a modern-day approximation of aristocratic decadence circa 1812.

Right from the top, Malloy makes this small foray into Tolstoy’s masterpiece as breezy and accessible as possible. There’s no need to have done the reading beforehand. The characters are each introduced by their defining characteristic. Natasha (Jacqueline Dennis) is “young.” Marya (Michelle Ianiro) is “old-school.” Anatole (Nick Rodrigues) is “hot.” His sister Hélène (Angel Adedokun) is a “slut.” And Andrey (James Mayagoitia) — Natasha’s fiancé — “isn’t here.”

Angel Adedokun walks down a long catwalk, her hand raised in the air. She is a slender Black woman with long textured hair and a purple silk dress and black boots. The ensemble dances behind her.
Angel Adedokun as Hélène owning the runway in ‘Natasha, Pierre & the Great Comet of 1812,’ (Benjamin Krantz)

From this point the story follows a predictable, almost melodramatic path. Natasha falls for the rakish Anaotle. Marya (and most of Moscovian society) is appalled. Hélène is an active participant in orchestrating their impending elopement. And Pierre (Albert Hodge) — Hélène’s beleaguered husband, whose satined seat at the center of the room affords him the best, most voyeuristic view into the lives of his play-mates — quietly turns the pages of his leather-bound copy of War and Peace as its rambunctious contents unfold on the stage in front of him.


As Natasha, Jacqueline Dennis is a delightful anchor for the staged tempests of Tolstoy. Wearing her ill-advised desire for Anatole as freshly as the virginal rose she wears in her hair, Dennis shines with a celestial radiance that brightens and enhances each performer pulled into her orbit. These include a blissfully lovely duet with her winsome cousin Sonya (Veronica Renner); a blushing acceptance of the effects of her evident charms on Moscow’s elite, gathered around her at the opera; and the rakish whims of Anatole transformed almost to gentleness by her illuminating presence.

Nick Rodrigues wearing a loose purple silk shirt and tight black trousers holds out his hand and smiles.
Anatole is hot. Nick Rodrigues as Anatole in ‘Natasha, Pierre & the Great Comet of 1812,’ by Dave Malloy. (Benjamin Krantz)

In turn, Nick Rodrigues as Anatole cuts a very convincing cad. His vocals, while sometimes shaky, combine with superlative cheekbones to lend him the blazing sex appeal of a Wham!-era George Michael. Equally matched for heat and charm, Angel Adedokun as Hélène steals almost every scene she’s present in, even when it’s merely as a witness to the forward motion of unstoppable events. She struts down the catwalk like she owns it, flirts outrageously with every person within a 100-foot radius, and pounds out the beat of Anatole’s own overheated heart on a drum as he capriciously plots Natasha’s inevitable downfall.

Albert Hodge, a Black Man in a furcoat and a brown suit and red satin tie looks into the distance, a red curtain behind him.
Albert Hodge as Pierre in ‘Natasha, Pierre & the Great Comet of 1812,’ by Dave Malloy. (Benjamin Krantz)

Through all of the tumult and drama and excess, Pierre watches, often silently, from his corner of the room. When he joins the others, he drinks too much and speaks too loudly — a barroom philosophizer with a maudlin streak. And yet, Albert Hodge imbues his Pierre with a gravitas befitting his centrality to the plot. Despite (or perhaps because of) his less dignified moments, one can’t help but to root for things to finally work out in his favor. And so they do, when the long tail of the play comes back around to meet itself on the other side of intermission, like that of the titular Great Comet that dazzles both the nineteenth-century countryside and the twenty-first century theatre set. A brilliant beacon heralding a new age. Or, at least, a new path forward for Pierre and for his well-wishers, past and present.

‘Natasha, Pierre & the Great Comet of 1812’ runs through Jan. 15, 2023, at Ashby Stage in Berkeley. Details here.

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