In the 1970s and 1980s, sports and politics began to mix in unsavory ways, from the horrific massacre of the Israeli Olympic team in Munich in 1972 to boycotts of the 1980 and 1984 Summer Games. But sports can also lift nations and their place in the world in remarkable ways. Three years before the “Miracle on Ice,” when the U.S. Olympic hockey team won the Gold Medal in Lake Placid, a previously unsuccessful Israeli basketball team was attempting to pull off a miracle of its own at the 1976-77 European Cup Championship. Writer-director Dani Menkin tells the improbable story of Maccabi Tel-Aviv in On the Map, an exciting, superbly made documentary about a group of dedicated men whose on-court efforts were about more than going after the cup. “It’s not just basketball,” point guard Bob Griffin explains. Menkin mixes contemporary and archival footage for maximum impact; seeing the surviving members of the team donning their jerseys again and watching themselves in the biggest international game an Israeli team has ever participated in is tremendously moving. “It was something so unbelievable, so wishful, a great, golden place in sports history,” says sportscaster Alex Giladi, who took much of the amazing footage shown in the film. Fascinating insights emerge as Menkin speaks with Griffin, power forward Eric Minkin, forward Lou Silver, guard Miki Berkovich, center Aulcie Perry, superstar point guard and captain Tal Brody, and Jennifer Boatwright, the widow of small forward Jim Boatwright, in addition to former Notre Dame coach Digger Phelps, Hall of Famer Bill Walton, who played with Brody on the U.S. National Team, former NBA commissioner David Stern, NBA commentator Simmy Reguer, and broadcaster Gideon Hod. Among those putting Maccabi’s battles against Italy’s Mobilgirgi Varèse, Spain’s Real Madrid, and Russia’s CSKA Moscow Red Army into political perspective are former finance minister Yair Lapid, former Israeli ambassador to the U.S. Michael Oren, Maccabi president Shimon Mizrahi, and longtime Soviet prisoner and activist Natan Sharansky.
On the Map is a terrific documentary, particularly because Menkin (39 Pounds of Love, Dolphin Boy) was able to acquire so much outstanding black-and-white and color footage of the events discussed in the film, from Israeli defense minister Moshe Dayan greeting the team on court before games to Brody practicing by himself, from players sharing a prophetic cake to head coach Ralph Klein giving inspirational locker-room speeches. There is also archival footage of the 1972 Olympic massacre, the 1973 Yom Kippur War, Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin preparing to resign, Egyptian president Anwar Sadat meeting with U.S. president Jimmy Carter, and the 1976 Air France hijacking that led to Operation Entebbe. In the middle of it all is Brody, a kid from Jersey who helped change Israel and its position on the world stage. “There are some things that are more important than sport,” Stern says. “The excitement was just too much. I wanted more,” Perry asserts with a big smile. On the Map expertly delivers big-time on both accounts. The film opens December 9 at Cinema Village, with Menkin participating in Q&As following the 3:00, 5:00, and 7:00 screenings December 9-11.
PUSHING THE ENVELOPE — A DECADE OF DOCUMENTARY AT THE CINEMA EYE HONORS: THE ACT OF KILLING / THE LOOK OF SILENCE
THE ACT OF KILLING (Joshua Oppenheimer, 2012)
Museum of the Moving Image
35th Ave. at 36th St., Astoria
Sunday, December 11, $12 (can be applied to museum admission), 3:00
Series runs through December 23
Joshua Oppenheimer’s Oscar-nominated The Act of Killing is one of the most disturbing, and unusual, films ever made about genocide, and you can see even more of it on December 11 when the Museum of the Moving Image screens the director’s cut, containing thirty-seven minutes of additional material, as part of the nonfiction series “Pushing the Envelope: A Decade of Documentary at the Cinema Eye Honors.” In 1965–66, as many as a million supposed communists and enemies of the state were killed in the aftermath of a military coup in Indonesia. Nearly fifty years later, many of the murderers are still living in the very neighborhoods where they committed the atrocities, openly boasting about what they did, being celebrated on television talk shows, and even being asked to run for public office. While making The Globalization Tapes in Indonesia in 2004, the Texas-born Oppenheimer met some of these self-described gangsters and, struck by their brash, bold attitudes, decided to create a different kind of documentary. In addition to following them around as they go bowling, play golf, sing, and dance, proudly showing off how happy their lives are, Oppenheimer offered them the opportunity to tell their story as if it were a Hollywood movie. The men, whose love of American noir and Westerns heavily influenced the stylized killings they perpetrated, loved the idea and began to restage torture and murder scenes in great detail for the camera, getting in period costumes, putting on makeup, going over script details, reviewing the dailies, and playing both the violent criminals and their victims.
The leader is master executioner Anwar Congo, who is perhaps the only one haunted by his deeds; although on the surface he is proud of what he did, he is tormented by constant nightmares. Such is not the case for the others, who laugh as they go over the gory details, especially paramilitary leader Herman Koto, Congo’s protégé and a man seemingly without a conscience. Meanwhile, fellow executioner Adi Zulkadry wonders whether telling the truth will actually negatively impact their legendary status. “Human rights! All this talk about ‘human rights’ pisses me off,” Congo says in one scene. “Back then there was no human rights.” Oppenheimer also depicts how frighteningly powerful the three-million-strong, government-connected Pancasila Youth is, ready to fight for the very same things that led to the genocide in the first place. It’s hard to comprehend how these men continue to walk free, and one can argue whether Oppenheimer should indeed be giving them the platform that he does. Watching these gangsters — or “free men,” as they like to call themselves, since the Indonesian word for gangster is “preman,” derived from the Dutch “vrijman” — artistically re-create scenes of horrific violence is both illuminating and infuriating on multiple levels that will leave viewers angry and incredulous.
THE LOOK OF SILENCE (Joshua Oppenheimer, 2014)
Museum of the Moving Image
35th Ave. at 36th St., Astoria
Sunday, December 11, $12, 6:30
Series runs through December 23
Oppenheimer’s Oscar-nominated The Look of Silence opens with an old man, wearing a pair man, wearing a pair of red optic trial lens frames, gazing into and around the camera for twelve uncomfortable seconds, in complete silence, showing no emotion. It is a striking metaphor for the rest of the film, a shocking documentary about the 1965–66 Indonesian genocide and a bold man determined to confront the men who brutally murdered his brother then, along with a million other supposed communists. In 2012, Oppenheimer made the Oscar-nominated The Act of Killing, in which the leaders of the genocide, who are still in power today, restaged their killings as if they were Hollywood movie scenes. Created as a companion piece to that documentary, The Look of Silence follows forty-four-year-old optometrist Adi as he learns the details of what happened to his brother, Ramli, who was butchered two years before Adi was born. Adi has decided to do what no one else in his country will: break his culture’s silence and denial and face the perpetrators to make them take responsibility for what they did. If they are willing to show remorse, he is willing to forgive. But he has set out on what appears to be an impossible mission; the men he meets with still run Indonesia, and they are more than comfortable threatening the well-being of Adi and his family. Meanwhile, Adi’s parents and patients don’t want to talk about what occurred back in 1965–66, or what is still going on today, as they live in fear of these same men. “No, nothing happened,” one woman says when asked about the killings in her town of Aceh. “You ask too many questions,” she adds. Kemat, a survivor of the Snake River massacres, says, “The past is the past. I’ve accepted it. I don’t want to remember. It’s just asking for trouble.” Adi learns horrifying details as he meets with village death squad leader Inong (the old man shown at the beginning of the film), Snake River death squad commander Amir Siahaan, and regional legislature speaker M. Y. Basrun, all of whom defend their actions, and their power and wealth, while more than hinting that Adi should end his quest. But Adi isn’t about to back down.
Adi is often shown in front of a television, mystified as Oppenheimer shows him footage taken for The Act of Killing; Adi stares ahead in disbelief and silence, much like we did when watching the final film, amazed at what we were seeing. It is a fascinating coincidence that Adi is an optometrist, going around his community fitting people for glasses, helping them see better, even if they don’t always want to look at certain things. He is appalled that his children’s school still teaches that the evil communists deserved to die; it’s particularly telling when his young daughter playfully puts on two pairs of glasses, as if perhaps the next generation will not look away — and to emphasize that, Oppenheimer cuts directly to Adi’s aging, decrepit father, Rukun (whom his wife, Adi’s mother, Rohani, claims is 140), his eyes closed, as he can barely see or hear anymore and needs to be taken care of like a baby. Adi has become a folk hero in Indonesia, where some regions have banned the film and screenings had to be canceled because of threats of violence from the police and military. But the film itself depicts Adi as an everyman; he could be any one of us, saying the things that need to be said. “Making any film about survivors of genocide is to walk into a minefield of clichés, most of which serve to create a heroic (if saintly) protagonist with whom we can identify, thereby offering the false reassurance that, in the moral catastrophe of atrocity, we are nothing like the perpetrators,” Oppenheimer (The Globalisation Tapes) writes in his extensive, must-read notes on the film’s official website. “But presenting survivors as saintly in order to reassure ourselves that we are good is to use survivors to deceive ourselves. It is an insult to survivors’ experience, and does nothing to help us understand what it means to survive atrocity, what it means to live a life shattered by mass violence, and to be silenced by terror. To navigate this minefield of clichés, we have had to explore silence itself.” In that way, to use a cliché, The Look of Silence speaks volumes. And although it’s specifically about the Indonesian genocide, it could just as easily be made about many other mass murders that have occurred, and are still going on, around the world. Adi might be receiving long standing ovations at screenings where he appears, but it’s telling that the film’s closing credits include more than two dozen people listed as “Anonymous,” from the codirector and a coproducer to a camera operator and production managers. Clearly, fear still rules in Indonesia.
An unforgettable film that needs to be widely seen, The Look of Silence, which was executive produced by Werner Herzog, Errol Morris, and André Singer, is being shown at 6:30 on December 11 at the Museum of the Moving Image, shortly after the director’s cut of The Act of Killing. “Pushing the Envelope: A Decade of Documentary at the Cinema Eye Honors,” which celebrates the upcoming tenth annual Cinema Eye Honors awards, continues through December 23 with such other past Cinema Eye nominees and winners as Michael Palmieri and Donal Mosher’s October Country, Bill Ross IV and Turner Ross’s 45365, and Jennifer Venditti’s Billy the Kid, with the directors on hand for Q&As. Both The Act of Killing and The Look of Silence won Cinema Eye Honors for Outstanding Achievement in Nonfiction Feature Filmmaking and Outstanding Achievement in Production; Oppenheimer also won for Outstanding Achievement in Direction. The nominees for Outstanding Achievement in Nonfiction Feature Filmmaking for the 2017 Cinema Eye Honors are Cameraperson, Fire at Sea, I Am Not Your Negro, OJ: Made in America, and Weiner; the winners will be announced at the Museum of the Moving Image on January 11.
Who: Chris Botti, Vittorio Grigolo, Darlene Love, Idina Menzel, Ronnie Spector, Bruce Springsteen, Sting, James Taylor, more
What: Biannual benefit for the Rainforest Fund
Where: Stern Auditorium / Perelman Stage, Carnegie Hall,
When: Wednesday, December 14, $150 - $600, 7:00
Why: Founded in 1989 by Trudie Styler and Sting, the Rainforest Fund “supports programs that cover a range of issues from protection of civil and political rights of indigenous and tribal peoples, to the promotion and defense of their social, economic and cultural rights, including the protection of rights to their land and against the destructiveness of resource exploitation.” Every other year the man also known as Gordon Sumner leads a rousing benefit at Carnegie Hall to raise money and awareness for the organization, which must be cheering the recent news about the potential move of the Dakota Access Pipeline. The stellar lineup for the December 14 show, “Baby It’s Cold Outside”: The Revlon Concert for the Rainforest Fund, features jazz trumpeter Chris Botti, Italian tenor Vittorio Grigolo, legendary vocalists Darlene Love and Ronnie Spector, Broadway superstar Idina Menzel, bestselling author Bruce Springsteen, singer-songwriter James Taylor, and Sting, in addition to surprise guests. Previous shows, which used to be known as Rock for the Rainforest, have included performances by Paul Simon, Whitney Houston, Stephen Stills, Dionne Warwick, Billy Joel, Renée Fleming, Elton John, Natalie Cole, George Michael, Gladys Knight, Tom Jones, Macy Gray, Ravi Shankar, Sheryl Crow, and Stevie Wonder, mixing multiple genres and resulting in fab finales with everyone onstage joining in on classic tunes.
The Playwrights Realm
The Duke on 42nd St.
Wednesday - Monday through December 24, $65-$85
Sarah DeLappe’s sharply incisive debut play about a girls soccer team, The Wolves, is back for an encore engagement at the Duke on 42nd St., making a playoff run after a superb regular season in September. The Playwrights Realm production is set in the present in an unnamed middle America town, where the team is making a championship run of its own. The action takes place on Laura Jellinek’s rectangular AstroTurf set, with the audience seated bleacher-style on the two longer sides of the central green field. Over the course of ninety minutes and a handful of Saturday game warm-ups, the nine girls discuss menstruation, their perpetually hung-over coach, social media, religion, exercise, parents, abortion, political correctness, and making a difference in the world while stretching, jogging in formation, and kicking the ball around in predetermined practice routines (including the awesome spider). The sixteen- and seventeen-year-old students are more than a bit fascinated with aging and death; the play opens with a debate about whether ninety-year-old former Khmer Rouge leader Nuon Chea should be imprisoned or executed for horrific crimes he committed in the 1970s. When a few of the girls admit they don’t know anything about the Khmer Rouge, one says, “We don’t do genocide till senior year.” When they argue about the success of various types of feminine hygiene products, the same girl declares, “Score on me with my own baby blood? I think not!” The Wolves regularly passes the Bechdel test, as very few of the discussions have anything to do with boys. In addition, nearly everyone involved with the play is female; the only male listed in the program is one of the sound designers.
The Realm’s Page One Playwright, DeLappe, and director Lila Neugebauer (Signature Plays: The Sandbox, The Wayside Motor Inn) — both of whom played soccer and made playing the sport with the actors part of the audition process — serve up rapid-fire dialogue like a ball being passed around during a game, with multiple conversations going on at the same time, the audience swerving their heads back and forth to keep up with the fast pace and flow. After a victory, many an athlete has attributed success to that mundane sports cliché, Total Team Effort, but that is exactly what makes The Wolves such a winner; the nine young actors are individually excellent and even better as a unit, although they are later joined by a soccer mom (Kate Arrington) in a heartfelt but unnecessary coda. DeLappe’s clever writing prevents the girls from turning into stereotypes; in fact, for most of the play they are referred to by their numbers, not their names. (We don’t even learn everyone’s given appellation.) They all wear Ásta Bennie Hostetter’s blue uniform costumes except for the goalie, #00 (Lizzy Jutila), who dresses in yellow and purposely mismatched sneakers; she barely speaks but pays close attention to what the rest of the girls are saying. The team is led by #25 (Lauren Patten), the captain, who has learned various motivation techniques from her father. The rest of the cast, each of whom deserves kudos, features Sarah Mezzanotte as the skinny #2; Brenna Coates as the bold and brash striker, #7; Midori Francis as the childlike and innocent #8; Susannah Perkins as the elitist and morbid #11; Jenna Dioguardi as the wacky, filter-less #13; Samia Finnerty as the serious #14, who is best friends with #7; and Tedra Millan as the mysterious #46, an odd new girl who, according to #13, lives with her mother in a “yogurt.” (It’s actually a yurt.) All of their interactions feel honest and genuine, fully immersing the audience in their very believable private and public dramas. The play, which shared the inaugural Relentless Award (with Clare Barron’s Dance Nation), presented by the American Playwriting Foundation in honor of Philip Seymour Hoffman, makes us eager to see more from DeLappe. A wonderful and unique theatrical experience, The Wolves continues at the Duke through December 24, but it deserves a whole lot more extra time before that final whistle blows.
333 East 47th St. at First Ave.
Saturday, December 10, 7:30, and Sunday, December 11, 2:30, $28
Japan Society is hosting the North American premiere this weekend of a rather unique retelling of the favorite mukashi banashi folktale Hanasaka Jiisan (The Old Man Who Made Flowers Bloom), a wild and wacky version by Ryohei Kondo and his all-male Condors dance company. In the story, a childless couple’s dog finds treasure in their backyard, but things go awry when a greedy neighbor then borrows the pooch so it can dig up treasure on his land as well. Currently celebrating its twentieth anniversary, the twelve-member Condors troupe has previously performed such shows as Nezumi no Sumo (Rats’ Sumo), Apollo, Conquest of the Galaxy: Mars, and 2012 Angry Men, an adaptation of 12 Angry Men. The Tokyo-born, South America-raised Kondo, who brought Goats Block the Road, Part III: Goat Stampede to Japan Society in January 2011, has a talent for creating works that combine silliness and unpredictability with a strong social conscience, sharing Japanese culture while avoiding preaching. (He has also choreographed Takashi Miike’s crazy The Happiness of the Katakuris and Yatterman.) Performed by Michihiko Kamakura, Yoshihiro Fujita, Kojiro Yamamoto, and Kondo, Hanasaka Jiisan features playful props and costumes (by Hiroko Takamatsu) on Hanako Murayama’s ever-changing set. It will be preceded by Tokyo-born, Brooklyn-based Maiko Kikuchi’s Pink Bunny, a parade consisting of puppets and unusual objects marching across the stage in short vignettes. In November 2015, the Pratt graduate’s No Need for a Night Light on a Light Night Like Tonight had its world premiere at La MaMa; Pink Bunny premiered in 2014 as part of St. Ann’s Labapalooza! Answering the question “What do you want to be?,” the piece will be performed by Maiko Kikuchi, Shun Kikuchi, Monica Lerch, David Commander, and Zac Pless.
Center Stage (Stanley Kwan, 1991)
7 Ludlow St. between Canal & Hester Sts.
Thursday, December 8, 1:30, 4:15, 7:00
Tuesday, December 20, 7:00
Series runs December 8-31
“Isn’t she a replica of myself?” Maggie Cheung says of Chinese actress Ruan Ling-yu in 1991’s Center Stage, in which Cheung plays Ruan as well as herself. “Maggie, may I ask if you wish to be remembered half a century later?” a man asks, to which Cheung responds, “That’s not so important to me. If future people do remember me, it won’t be the same as Ruan Ling-yu, as she halted her career at the age of twenty-five, when she was at her most glorious. Now she is a legend.” The Hong Kong–born Cheung is now a legend herself, having made more than ninety films since her career began in 1984, when she was nineteen; current and future people are sure to remember the glamorous superstar who continues to help spread Chinese cinema around the world. Cheung, a former model and beauty queen, is being celebrated in the Metrograph series “Maggie Cheung: Center Stage,” running December 8 to 31 and consisting of twenty of her best films, all shown in 35mm, made with such directors as Wong Kar-wai, Olivier Assayas, Jackie Chan, Johnnie To, Tsui Hark, and Stanley Tong. In Center Stage, which kicks off the series, Cheung is radiant as both herself and Ruan as director Stanley Kwan goes back and forth between the present, as Cheung is making the film, and the past, as she portrays Ruan rising from an extra to a star in the late 1920s and early 1930s, at the same time Japan is mounting attacks against China. Cheung, who was named Best Actress at prestigious film festivals in Berlin, Chicago, Taiwan, and Hong Kong for the role, is joined by a stellar cast, including Chen Yen-yen, Lily Li, Tony Leung Ka-fai, Carina Lau, and Chin Han; the real Ruan is seen in archival footage. Made twenty-five years ago, Center Stage, also known simply as Actress, is an excellent start to this wide-ranging series, which features — in addition to the below works — such other films as the Police Story trilogy, The Iceman Cometh, Paper Marriage with Sammo Hung, and In the Mood for Love, one of the most lush and gorgeous romances ever made.
DAYS OF BEING WILD (A FEI JING JUEN) (Wong Kar-wai, 1990)
Saturday, December 10, 7:45, 10:00
Wong Kar-wai’s second film, Days of Being Wild — following the surprising success of his debut feature, As Tears Go By — was a popular failure, as Hong Kong audiences were not yet ready for his introspective, character-driven, nonlinear style. (However, it did win five Hong Kong Film Awards, including Best Picture and Best Actor.) Days is Wong’s first film with master cinematographer Christopher Doyle, who shot all of Wong’s work through 2004, including Chungking Express, Fallen Angels, Happy Together, and In the Mood for Love. The late Leslie Cheung, who jumped out a hotel window in 2003, stars as Yuddy, a disaffected, beautiful youth who lures in women and then, after they fall in love with him, verbally mistreats them and cheats on them. Among his conquests are the gorgeous Su-Lizhen (Maggie Cheung), often shot in magnificent close-up, and the trampy Mimi (Carina Lau), who is jealous of Su, who takes comfort in telling her tale of woe to local police officer Tide (Andy Lau). Meanwhile, Yuddy, who was raised by a former prostitute, is obsessed with finding his birth mother. Set in 1960, the film’s leitmotif involves time and memory, with clocks ticking loudly and lots of long, lingering looks. The story goes a bit haywire in the latter sections, although the ending is a gem. (Look for Tony Leung there.)
CLEAN (Olivier Assayas, 2004)
Friday, December 16, 4:30, 9:30
With their divorce pending, writer-director Olivier Assayas and Hong Kong superstar Maggie Cheung wish each other a fond farewell in the moving drama Clean. Named Best Actress at the 2004 Cannes Film Festival for her extraordinary performance, Cheung stars as Emily Wang, a junkie trying to resuscitate the fading music career of her heroin-addicted lover, Lee (British musician James Johnston). Their life together is so screwed up that they rarely see their son, Jay (James Dennis), who lives in Vancouver with Lee’s parents (Nick Nolte and Martha Henry). On the road, Emily scores some drugs, fights with Lee, goes out for a ride, then returns to find him dead from an overdose and the cops waiting to arrest her. After six months in prison, she gets out to find that her life has changed more than she could ever have imagined. Cheung is effervescent every step of the way, lighting up the screen despite playing a very hard-to-like character; her tender scenes with the soft-spoken, grizzled Nolte are particularly gentle and touching. Unfortunately the subplot set in the music world is clichéd, annoying, and mostly unnecessary, everything that the rest of the film is not. The stunt casting is particularly irritating: Tricky, the band Metric, and Mazzy Star’s David Roback all play themselves. The otherwise fine cast also includes Béatrice Dalle, Jeanne Balibar, Don McKellar, and Laetitia Spigarelli, with a soundtrack dominated by ethereal songs by Brian Eno.
IRMA VEP (Olivier Assayas, 1996)
Friday, December 16, 2:15, 7:00
Olivier Assayas pays homage to François Truffaut’s Day for Night in this piece of pseudoartistic fluff about a film crew’s attempts at remaking Louis Feuillade’s 1915 classic Les Vampires. The great Maggie Cheung, who later married and divorced Assayas, is wasted as the star of the remake, and Truffaut regular Jean-Pierre Léaud, playing the director, is frustratingly unintelligible when he speaks in English, which unfortunately is a lot in this high-falutin’ mess.
ASHES OF TIME REDUX (Wong Kar-wai, 2008)
Saturday, December 17, 7:00
Monday, December 19, 5:00, 9:15
Back in 1993, writer-director Wong Kar-wai’s Ashes of Time was released, a thinking man’s martial arts epic inspired by Jin Yong’s The Eagle-Shooting Heroes novels. With numerous versions in circulation and the original negatives in disrepair, Wong (Chungking Express, In the Mood for Love) decided to painstakingly reedit and restore the film fifteen years later, renaming it Ashes of Time Redux. The plot – which is still as confusing as ever — revolves around Ouyang Feng (Leslie Cheung), a loner who lives in the desert, where people come to him when they need someone taken care of. Every year he is visited by Huang Yaoshi (Tony Leung Ka-fai), who keeps him informed of the world outside jianghu — especially about his lost love (Maggie Cheung). Meanwhile, Murong Yang (Brigitte Lin) has demanded that Ouyang kill Huang for having jilted his sister, Murong Yin (also played by Lin), who in turn hires Ouyang to kill Yang. There’s also a blind swordsman (Tony Leung Chiu Wai), a peasant girl with a basket of eggs (Charlie Young), a poor, rogue swordsman (Jacky Cheung), and a bottle of magic wine that can erase memories. Or something like that. But what’s most impressive about Ashes of Time Redux is Christopher Doyle’s thrilling, swirling cinematography, which sweeps the audience into the film, and Wu Tong’s rearranged score, based on the original music by Frankie Chan and Roel A. Garcia and featuring soaring cello solos by Yo-Yo Ma.
249 West 45th St. between Broadway & Eighth Ave.
Tuesday - Sunday through September 3, $59-$189
Hamilton, watch out; there’s a new historical musical in town, dueling it out for the designation of best show on Broadway. In his epic 1869 novel War and Peace, Leo Tolstoy wrote of his protagonist, Count Pierre Bezukhov, “At the entrance to the Arbat Square an immense expanse of dark starry sky presented itself to his eyes. Almost in the center of it, above the Prechistenka Boulevard, surrounded and sprinkled on all sides by stars but distinguished from them all by its nearness to the earth, its white light, and its long uplifted tail, shone the enormous and brilliant comet of 1812 — the comet which was said to portend all kinds of woes and the end of the world.” And there are all kinds of woes indeed in Natasha, Pierre & the Great Comet of 1812, Dave Malloy’s smashing electro-pop opera adapted from a 70-page section of Tolstoy’s classic tale, which has been magnificently transported to Broadway’s reconfigured Imperial Theatre. The little show that could began life in 2012 at 87-seat Ars Nova, where it ran for 39 performances. The next year it moved to the 199-seat tented Kazino cabaret in the Meatpacking District, and now it’s on Broadway, appropriately enough at the 1,200-seat Imperial, which set designer Mimi Lien (John, An Octoroon) has turned into an immersive wonderland, with ramps snaking from the stage throughout the theater and the audience seated in conventional chairs in the balcony and tavern-like chairs on the stage as well as in slightly sunken pits. The large cast of more than 40 actors and musicians emerge from every nook and cranny, every corner, even occasionally taking a seat right next to you and clinking glasses for a toast. You will be served a potato pierogi early on, and later a percussive egg to shake during some merriment. You might even get a page of War and Peace dropped in your lap. During intermission, you can roam anywhere, getting up close and personal with hundreds of paintings (many of Napoleon) that line the walls.
Set during the Napoleonic Wars, Natasha is a delightfully soapy story of love and betrayal in 1812 Moscow. The fabulous prologue introduces the major characters: brave Prince Andrey Bolkonsky (Nicholas Belton), who is away at war; “bewildered and awkward” Pierre Bezukhov (Josh Groban), a drunken cuckold who has given up on life; “young” Countess Natalya Ilyinichna Rostova, Andrey’s beautiful fiancée, called Natasha (Denée Benton); “hot” Anatole Kuragin (Lucas Steele), an immoral ladies’ man; “slut” Countess Hélène Bezukhova (Amber Gray), Anatole’s devious sister, who is married to Pierre; “good” Sofia Alexandrovna Rostova, Natasha’s trusted cousin, who goes by Sonya (Brittain Ashford); “crazy” Old Prince Bolkonsky (Belton), Andrey’s doddering father; “plain” Princess Mary Bolkonskaya (Gelsey Bell), Andrey’s sister; “old school” Marya Dmitryevna Akhrosimova (Grace McLean), Natasha’s godmother; “fierce” Fedya Dolokhov (Nick Choksi), a good friend of Anatole’s; and “fun” Balaga (Paul Pinto), a carefree troika driver. Don’t worry if it all doesn’t soak in immediately; there is a family tree in the program, which the cast suggests you refer to when necessary. After the prologue, a chorus declares, “Oh Pierre! Our merry feasting crank / Our most dear, most kind, most smart and eccentric / A warm-hearted Russian of the old school / His purse is always empty / Cuz it’s open to all / Oh Pierre / Just one of a hundred sad old men / Living out their final days in Moscow.” The downtrodden Pierre readily admits, “I never thought that I’d end up like this / I used to be better.” Attending an opera, Natasha sees Anatole and is instantly smitten with him, so the swaggering Anatole swoops down on her, soon proclaiming his undying love. Scandal ensues as there’s a duel, a costume ball, and various deceptions, leading to a deeply intimate and emotional conclusion.
“We are speaking of most ordinary things,” Anatole says at one point, but there is nothing ordinary about Natasha, Pierre & the Great Comet of 1812. Director Rachel Chavkin (The Royale, Small Mouth Sounds), who has been with the show from the start, finds endlessly inventive ways to bring this epic to life, as characters weave in and among the audience, the ensemble is always on the move, and the pace never lags for even a second. As Bradley King’s lights go down after one number, anticipation builds as to where the next song will begin. Choreographer Sam Pinkleton (Machinal, Significant Other) makes full use of the space, further involving the audience in the cast’s movements. The gorgeous costumes, by Paloma Young (Peter and the Starcatcher), range from elegant and fashionable to sexy and steam-punk. The ensemble is uniformly outstanding, from the wandering accordion players to the opera dancers (Reed Luplau and Ani Taj) to the larger roles, many of which are performed by the original Ars Nova actors, including Steele, Gray, Ashford (her “Sonya Alone” solo is stunning), Bell, Choksi, and Pinto. In her Broadway debut, Benton is both alluring and delicate as the torn Natasha, but the biggest surprise was Scott Stangland, who was subbing for an ill Josh Groban the night I went.
In an 1858 letter to the editor comparing the comets of 1811 and 1858, British admiral and astronomer William Henry Smyth wrote, “In re the magnificent comet [of 1858], I have been closely attending to its fine figure; and am asked on various sides, as I had the advantage of having closely watched both, which I thought the most splendid in appearance, this, or that of 1811? Now, to my memory, which is very distinct, the palm must be given to the latter. As a mere sight-object, the branched tail was of greater interest, the nucleus with its ‘head-veil’ was more distinct, and its circumpolarity was a fortunate incident for gazers.” I feel very fortunate to have experienced the splendidly fine figure of Stangland, who played Pierre in the pre-Broadway American Repertory Theater production at Harvard in December 2015/January 2016 and who is absolutely magnificent at the Imperial, embodying Pierre as if he were born for the part. With his stout frame and bushy facial hair, he commands the audience’s attention whether taking center stage or playing the accordion or the piano in a pit. I was floored by the original presentation at Ars Nova, in which show creator Malloy, who wrote the music, lyrics, and book and did the orchestrations, played Pierre with an innate charm, and now I’ve been blown away by Stangland, who gives a profound performance that will break your heart — and left me playfully thinking, “Josh and Lin-Manuel who?”