The 12 Tony Award nominations for the musical “Natasha, Pierre and the Great Comet of 1812” were tops on Broadway last spring, and what’s one of the first things director Rachel Chavkin is doing next? Opening a new show at Bethesda’s Round House Theatre, pretty much in her native back yard.
Sarah Gancher’s “I’ll Get You Back Again” is not a repeat of “Great Comet,” the rollicking immersive adaptation of a “War and Peace” passage that enveloped audiences in an off-Broadway tent production by Ars Nova years before its commercial triumph. The new play does feature live music, and a set of circumstances unlike anything else you’re likely to see this season.
“It’s old hippies reuniting, working through the issues that broke the band up and that tanked the agenda of the 1960s,” Gancher says. “It’s also deeply about transcendence. And a lot about comedy.”
Chavkin usually hates thumbnail descriptions, but she allows one here. “It’s ‘The Big Chill’ meets the Grateful Dead,” she says.
Gancher’s play seems imprinted with recurring Chavkin interests: history, epics, live music and a lively physical style.
The show will unfold on a two-story revolving stage, with plugged-in instruments and a hand-painted drum kit.
Round House artistic director Ryan Rilette nearly produced the play last season, but wasn’t sure whether the music ought to be performed live. Chavkin clearly saw it with real actor-musicians.
“I said, ‘So we have to find people who can play rock drums, are in their 60s, and can handle complex monologues while handling Three Stooges physical comedy?’” Rilette recalls. “And Rachel said, ‘Yeah.’”
The brashness of “I’ll Get You Back Again” stands in contrast to the intimacy and scant dialogue of Bess Wohl’s “Small Mouth Sounds,” another highly praised Chavkin production for Ars Nova that’s on national tour.
Rilette notes some directors cultivate personal hallmarks, a recognizable “auteur style.” “Rachel is aggressively not interested in that,” he says.
“There’s this sense that she can pull off anything,” Gancher says. “If she says something won’t work, I trust that, because I know she’ll try anything.”
Chavkin, 37, forged her reputation as artistic director of the TEAM, a Brooklyn-based troupe she co-founded in 2004.
Works include an adaptation of Allen Ginsberg’s Beat Generation cornerstone “Howl,” a project about a woman who has swallowed her TV called “Give Up! Start Over! (In the darkest times I look to Richard Nixon for hope),” and an examination of capitalism, “Mission Drift,” which moves from 17th-century Amsterdam to 21st-century Las Vegas — with songs, of course.
“I hate the acronym,” Chavkin says of Theater of the Emerging American Moment, which the TEAM has discarded. “But the mission is exactly the same: trying to make vibrant, intellectually and spiritually complicated work about the country, our past and our present.”
You can see that intention in the kitchen-sink realism of the hyper-stuffed “I’ll Get You Back Again” set, the specificity of West Coast progressivism that will be augmented by authentic rock and roll.
“It’s amazing to have a director who really understands music,” says Dave Malloy, the “Great Comet” composer and that show’s original lead performer.
Malloy testifies to an eye for detail Gancher says is “incredibly rigorous. She won’t let you get away with anything.”
When Malloy changed a few notes in “Great Comet,” Chavkin piped up, “What happened to that oboe line I really liked?’”
Chavkin was born in Adams Morgan to civil rights lawyers who split up after she went to college. The family moved to Silver Spring when she was small, and by middle school she attended a local theater camp. As a high schooler thinking about college, the affinity grew intense. “I sat in my boyfriend’s Taurus,” she recalls, “crying that I wanted to go to school for theater.”
As a kid she saw “Dreamgirls” at the old Harlequin Dinner Theater, and interned in the Olney Theatre’s costume shop. She saw Studio Theatre’s 1996 staging of “Hair,” which scampered throughout the building and guided the audience from room to room. “That was the first time I thought, ‘Oh — this is what a director does,’” Chavkin says. She wonders if that show was somewhere in her head as she fashioned the immersive, interactive “Great Comet.” “Probably,” she decides.
At New York University, she took a class called Create Your Own Work. The “catastrophe” (her word) of the semester’s assignment: be interesting on stage for 10 minutes. “I learned that I had to give myself tasks based around the themes of whatever I’m interested in,” Chavkin says. “And that process has become how the TEAM works.”
Several NYU grads created the TEAM and launched at Scotland’s Edinburgh Festival in 2005. Immediate prizes led to connections with the National Theatre of Scotland and director John Tiffany, to a bigger presence in Britain, and to international tours to Australia, Asia, Europe and the United States.
“It’s kind of crazy that a director of her caliber, or her company, has not come to D.C. yet,” Rilette observes. (He also notes Washington doesn’t have the kind of home for major experimentalists that New York has in the Brooklyn Academy of Music and St. Ann’s Warehouse.)
Raised by lawyers in the District clearly has bearing on Chavkin’s theater. Yes, Chavkin — who comes across as an exacting thinker as she chats at Round House — considered a career in law. “I find it so beautiful, the boiling down from an ideal to the nitty-gritty of negotiating whether something is an ‘and’ or an ‘or,’” Chavkin says, “and the vast difference that makes as to whether millions of children get to keep their insurance.”
She’s a famous director thanks to “Great Comet,” which closed prematurely last month in a bitter irony.
The musical’s cast was always notable for its diversity, but this summer, when producers announced that Mandy Patinkin would headline the show to boost sales, the backlash against replacing Okieriete Onaodowan three weeks early in favor of a famous white actor forced “Comet” to shut down.
“I’m slightly waiting for someone to tell me what the job is next,” Chavkin says, “whether that’s a tour, or going to London or, I don’t know, to Minneapolis to see a regional production that someone else directed, and celebrating that.”
Being Tony-nominated has been “great!” Chavkin says, with a wide smile and an audible exclamation point.
Bigger than the nomination, though, is “showing that I can make a f-ing good Broadway-scale show. That definitely has had a profound impact.”
Talk about what’s next, and Chavkin — who has an epic “Moby Dick” in the works with Malloy — says yes to the idea of a “conventional” musical.
Or, she volunteers, a Downy commercial.
“I can’t say I’m positioning my life to be the person who gets that call,” she laughs of the soap ad. “But I would never say I wouldn’t do anything. Very little is boring to me.”
I’ll Get You Back Again, by Sarah Gancher. Directed by Rachel Chavkin. Through Oct. 29 at Round House Theatre, 4545 East-West Hwy., Bethesda. Tickets: $36-$65. Call 240-644-1100 or visit roundhousetheatre.org.