The Garbologists | Bulldog Ensemble Theater  |  Mettlesome  |  Golden Belt, Durham Nov. 3-13

Natasha, Pierre, & The Great Comet of 1812 | ★★★★1/2 | Theatre Raleigh | Through Nov. 6

Say you know your mail carrier, your grocer, or the farmer at the local farmers’ market well enough to have a conversation with them.

Odds are you don’t have the same relationship with the sanitation workers who take away your garbage and recycling each week. Among the essential labor required to keep a community or a civilization viable, sanitation is bedrock. It’s also undeniably a site for social stigma as well.

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

In the dramatic comedy, two characters who in most other circumstances would have been hard-pressed to spend five minutes in each other’s company are forced to work through their differences in real-time, in the cab of a 19-ton Mack truck as it trundles the streets of Manhattan at six a.m. on the coldest mornings of the year.

Things have a way of getting pretty real pretty fast in a gig like that.

Marlowe’s a taciturn Black woman from a wealthy, well-educated family with a graduate degree in art history. For some reason, she’s choosing to be here, as a rookie being grudgingly shown the ropes by Danny, a white, rough-edged, blue-collar worker with street savvy, what playwright Lindsay Joelle terms run-of-the-mill machismo, and little in the way of emotional filtration.

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

“I like plays about people who make the choice to let other people into their lives,” says director Marshall Botvinick. For him, The Garbologists “is about two people who make kind of an unexpected choice to let the other one in.”

Coming out of the pandemic, Botvinick notes that people in white-collar professions “are actually living much more siloed existences. The ways we’re able to curate the very limited number of people we interact with minimizes the range of possible experiences we can encounter.”

While The Garbologists doesn’t paper over the profound differences between the odd couple, “it also doesn’t see difference as an insurmountable barrier to relationship and human connection,” Botvinick says. “It’s important that two people can become a part of each other’s lives by listening to each other and doing each other kindnesses. Coming out of so much isolation during the pandemic, that kind of story feels right.”

It takes chutzpah to state your script’s short suit in the opening moments of a show. Damned if that doesn’t work, for the most part, though, in Natasha, Pierre & the Great Comet of 1812, the brisk, kinetic, and sprawling 2016 Broadway musical that represents a high-water mark not only in Theatre Raleigh’s current season but in the company’s 17-year history.

David Toole’s first words as the dour Pierre and a poignant, silent, cirque-tinged tableau set up the central separation of sweethearts 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 set. Under Tim Seib’s irrepressible direction, they not only front-load 10 of the show’s characters but help us remember them through stacked one-line descriptions. The result is raucous and fun.

During the initial data dump, the chorus cheerfully advises us to keep our playbills close: “Gonna have to study up a little bit / If you want to keep with the plot / Cuz it’s a complicated Russian novel / … So look it up in your program / We’d appreciate it, thanks a lot!”

But David Malloy’s sung-through semi-opera libretto, which packs in some 70 pages of Tolstoy’s War and Peace in a little under two hours, doesn’t just omit details that are included in the printed show notes. It also shorts, drastically in places, the backstories and character development needed for us to key into its central, title characters.

Malloy’s sketchbook approach works well in supporting characters’ numbers like “The Private and Intimate Life of the House,” detailing the miseries of dutiful daughter Mary (Rebekah Holland) with the wretched Prince Andrey Bolkonsky (Derek Robinson), and the hellzapoppin act 2 showcase devoted to the ne’er-do-well Balaga (Tedd Szeto).

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

Still, Malloy, Seib, and choreographer Lisette Glodowski succeed in keeping us swept up in the panoramic whirl of this world, and the dazzling, ever-shifting influences in an imaginative electropop opera score that careens from Russian folk song through klezmer, punk, and club music before doubling back to Broadway ballads.

Joanna Li’s superb musical direction overcame set logistics that split the band in two, with actor/musicians adding from spots in the audience and on stage. With that many moving parts, amazing sound designer Eric Alexander Collins faced a major challenge in keeping vocalists always audible.

The result? A professional-grade production of an entertaining and supremely difficult work, one that gives us a glimpse of what the future of musical theater—and achievement in theater in this region—might look like. See it before it closes.

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