An overview of T’he Garbologists’ and a review of Theater Raleigh’s dazzling ‘Natasha, Peter and the Great Comet of 1812’

Opera theater

The Garbologists | Bulldog Ensemble Theater | fiery | Golden Belt, Durham November 3-13

Natasha, Pierre and the great comet of 1812 | ★★★★1/2 | Raleigh Theater | Until November 6

Suppose you know your postman, grocer, or local market farmer well enough to have a conversation with them.

Chances are you don’t have the same relationship with the sanitation workers who take out your trash and recycling every week. Among the essential works required to maintain a viable community or civilization, sanitation is the foundation. It is also undeniably a site of social stigma.

But the depth of the divisions between the different races, genders and classes in our culture are re-examined when a Columbia University graduate takes a job on a garbage truck from New York to New York. The Garbologists. When it opens this weekend, the Bulldog Ensemble Theater‘s latest work will be the first show in the intimate new theater that Mettlesome, Durham’s longtime comedy collective, has built in the Golden Belt’s Warehouse building, behind Hi- Wire Brewing.

In the comedy-drama, two characters who under most other circumstances would have struggled to spend five minutes in each other’s company are forced to work out their differences in real time, in the cab of a truck. 19-ton Mack as it zips through the streets of Manhattan at 6 a.m., the coldest mornings of the year.

Things tend to get pretty real pretty quickly at a gig like this.

Marlowe is a taciturn black woman from a wealthy, well-educated family, with a graduate degree in art history. For some reason, she chose to be here, as a rookie who is reluctantly being shown the ropes by Danny, a white, rough, street-savvy blue-collar worker, what playwright Lindsay Joelle calls the banal machismo, and little emotional filtration.

“They come from completely different worlds,” says Mettlesome comedian and actress Lauren Foster-Lee, who plays Marlowe. “But their meeting ground opens up when honesty starts to come in.”

“I love plays about people who make the choice to let others into their lives,” says director Marshall Botvinick. For him, The Garbologists “It’s about two people who make an unexpected choice to let the other in.”

Coming out of the pandemic, Botvinick notes that people in white-collar professions “actually live much more siled existences. The way we are able to manage the very limited number of people we interact with minimizes the range of possible experiences we can encounter.

Whereas The Garbologists doesn’t gloss over the deep differences between the odd couples, “nor does it see difference as an insurmountable obstacle to human relationship and connection,” Botvinick says. “It’s important that two people can be part of each other’s lives by listening to each other and showing kindness to each other. Coming out of such isolation during the pandemic, this kind of story seems right.

IIt takes boldness to state the short costume of your script in the opening moments of a show. Damn if that doesn’t work, for the most part though, in Natasha, Pierre and the great comet of 1812the lively, kinetic, sprawling 2016 Broadway musical that represents a high point not just in Theater Raleigh’s current season, but in the company’s 17-year history.

David Toole’s first words as an austere Stone and a poignant, quiet, circus-tinged tableau established the central separation of lovers Natasha and Andrey during the French invasion of 1812. Immediately after that, a boisterous company of characters from various strata of Russian society spills from the promenades and platforms of Benedict Fancy’s Cyrillic-inscribed cabaret. Under the irrepressible direction of Tim Seib, they not only load up 10 of the show’s characters, but help us remember them with stacked one-line descriptions. The result is raucous and fun.

During the initial data dump, the chorus gleefully advises us to keep our posters handy: “Gonna have to study a little / If you wanna follow the plot / ‘Cause it’s a complicated Russian novel / … So watch put it in your program / We would be delighted, thank you very much!

But David Malloy’s sung semi-opera libretto, which contains some 70 pages of Tolstoy War and peace in just under two hours, doesn’t just omit the details that are included in the printed show notes. It also cuts short, drastically in places, on the stories and character development we need to grasp its main characters.

Malloy’s sketchbook approach works well to support character numbers like “The Private and Intimate Life of the Home”, detailing the miseries of devoted daughter Mary (Rebekah Holland) with wretched Prince Andrey Bolkonsky (Derek Robinson ), and the showcase for Act 2 of Hell dedicated to the scoundrel Balaga (Tedd Szeto).

To varying degrees, this choice leaves the characters of Pierre, Andrey, and Natasha underfunded. Toole and Robinson struggle to convey their characters’ pasts and their major shifts in the present in the short, thin lyrics of their songs. Manna Nichols is more successful in her numbers while the overprotected young woman from the provinces foolishly looses herself in the predatory society of Moscow.

Yet Malloy, Seib and choreographer Lisette Glodowski manage to keep us swept up in the panoramic whirlwind of this world, and the dazzling, ever-changing influences in an imaginative electropop operatic score that swings from Russian folksong to klezmer, punk and club music before returning to Broadway ballads.

Joanna Li’s superb musical direction overcame set logistics that split the group in two, with actors/musicians adding seats in the audience and on stage. With so many moving parts, the incredible sound designer Eric Alexander Collins took on the major challenge of keeping the singers always audible.

The result? A professional-quality production of an entertaining and extremely challenging work, which gives us a glimpse of what the future of musical theater and theater production in this region might look like. To see before it closes.

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