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.
If a friend asked you where on they should sit, which seats would you recommend?
Every seat is a really good seat. The set designer and the director made sure that no matter where you sit, you get an amazing experience. If you’re sitting on one side of the stage, you’re getting something special that someone on the other side of the stage isn’t getting, and vice-versa. So, honestly, I recommend that people see it a bunch of times from different angles.
The lyrics for this show are very interesting—a lot of the times, you are singing a description of the emotions you’re also performing. Is that a hard thing to get the hang of?
The director has been very helpful with things like that. She made sure that you’re doing something while you sing, so it’s not just these nebulous words. You’re in a scene, this particular thing is happening—you have an action and a goal to hold onto. You actually understand where these words are coming from. It’s kind of Shakespearean in a way—it’s larger than life and you, in turn, become larger than life just to figure out how to feel it all.
How hard is it to go from the mindset of a 21st-century woman, where you have so much autonomy and so much information, into the mindset of Natasha, who’s so radically innocent?
What’s funny about Natasha is that while she is this 19th century woman, she is very different, because she’s so bold. She does exactly what she wants to do, despite the consequences. I think that any human, of any age, can connect to the part of themselves that so boldly wants something that you can barely see anything else. She sees what she wants and goes after it, and throws caution to the wind, which is actually pretty modern. She is brave and courageous, and does all these things that are completely against what a sensible young woman should do in her time.
I sawon Twitterthat you’re a fan of the ABC show "Scandal," so I wanted to ask: What do you think Olivia Pope would advise Natasha to do, if Natasha were her client?
I think that Olivia would either tell Natasha to forget about all the men and go get an education, or try and do what Pierre ends up doing, which is tell Anatole to get out of town. And I have feeling she might try to reconcile Natasha and Andrey. Things might have gone differently, but Maria, Sonya and Pierre do a pretty good job of “handling” the situation, Olivia Pope-style.
This is your first time being in Boston—have you gotten to see much of the city? Anything about it you particularly like?
We have been pretty busy rehearsing so far, so I haven’t gotten to see as much as I would like yet, but I have gotten to explore a bit. I’ve walked Harvard’s campus, which is beautiful, and I was very nerdy and did the Freedom Trail. I visited all the 17th century cemeteries and Paul Revere’s house. It’s really cool and really well done. You just get to follow that red brick trail to everything.