Actress Denee Benton, 23, is starring in the titular role in the A.R.T.'s new cabaret-style production of "Natasha, Pierre & the Great Comet of 1812" at the Loeb Drama Center through January 3. Dave Malloy's electro-pop musical is based on a particularly eventful 70-page section of Leo Tolstoy's "War and Peace," and was revived for the Cambridge stage under Obie-winning director Rachel Chavkin.
The native Floridian previously appeared as Nabulungi in the second national touring production of "The Book of Mormon," and chats with us about tackling Tolstoy, the best seat in the house and tapping into her inner-Olivia Pope.
Prior to joining "Natasha, Pierre, and the Great Comet of 1812," you were one of the three leads in a touring production of "The Book of Mormon." How challenging was it to jump from the bawdy frankness of Trey Parker and Matt Stone to Tolstoy?
You know, interestingly enough I’d say the shows have more in common than you’d expect. They are both cutting edge, and they’re things that no one had really seen before. They are both adaptations that were taken with so much fun, creativity, and spunk. With both, you hear the names of these plays and have no idea what to expect.
One of the most interesting things about this production is how, with Mimi Lien’s immersive stage design, much of the performance takes place in the middle of the audience. What kind of challenges does that present as a performer?
You can’t hide from anyone. In a traditional staging, if you’re nervous, if something’s going weird, you have things like the footlights, which keep you from even seeing the people that are out there. But with this show, there is someone three feet away from your face, [and that] really challenges you to stay present. You have to show up for every performance open and committed in a way that audience settings that are less intimate simply don’t demand.