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Synetic's Essential Master and Margarita

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What would you, Dear Reader, think about translating a Russian novel into a 90-minute theater piece? The novel on the table is Mikhail Bulgakov's The Master and Margarita and the theater piece--not really a play but more a dance concert with theatrical flourishes--is Synetic Theater's extravaganza by the same name. While not entirely true to the definition of extravaganza, this literary-work-turned-theater-piece with original music by Konstantine Lortkipanidze ranging from liturgical to brassy jazz (no singing) features circus elements--a man on stilts, a contortionist playing the devil's cat Behemoth (played by Philip Fletcher), a magic show where a man loses and regains his head; mime--Margarita transformed into a witch flying on a broom or the Soviet police torturing the Master; and surreal dance-movement ensembles of modest numbers (more like ten dancers versus the huge numbers of hoofers in something like the Ziegfeld Follies) featuring insane asylum inmates, ghouls, or invitees of the devil's masked ball.

The Master and Margarita, an all time favorite novel of the Dresser, interweaves three story lines--a writer's plight in Soviet Moscow during the 1930s, including his interactions with satanic miscreants; events in first-century Yershalaim concerning the crucifixion of Jesus Christ (Yeshua Ha-Notsri) and Pontius Pilate's role in the crucifixion; and the love story of the Master and Margarita. It's a writer's tale with many side stories about a man writing a novel on the crucifixion of Jesus Christ. It is an epically large story of truth versus fiction, death versus life, tragedy versus comedy. Synetic's The Master and Margarita is based on a play by Roland Reed as adapted and directed by Paata Tsikurishvili and choreographed by Irina Tsikurishvili.

Paata and Irina Tsikurishvili, the founders of Washington, DC's Synetic Theater, play the Master and Margarita in this three-act work with prologue. It is their choices that make this impressive display of talent, energy, and colorful costumes, sets, and props work well together. VolandSm.jpgNotable costumes and sets by Anastasia R. Simes include a flashy red outfit complete with a white ruff à la Shakespeare's time worn by Professor Voland (the devil is played by Armand Sindoni), a flowing great coat with a golden cast worn by Margarita, and the temple set of Pontius Pilate with it's various terraces and climbable walls. Colin K. Bills' lighting design significantly adds to visual effects and time-space transitions. For example, the Master talks about Margarita and she is shown in a bubble of light, which at first the Master cannot penetrate. Then he, too, is lit in his own bubble that allows him to enter the remembered "story time" so that he can be shown interacting with Margarita.

There are 15 cast members, three of whom are assigned strictly as ensemble players. None of the players emerge from the company as better than any of the others, which the Dresser believes to be part of the discipline taught by the Synetic approach to theater. There is a unity and consistency of acting/moving that makes for a comprehensively high-quality production. The Dresser finds it astonishing that a Russian novel can be compressed into a 90-minute theater production and convey what is important about the written work. Synetic's production of The Master and Margarita is a good introduction to Bulgakov's masterpiece.

TortureSM.jpgOne of the questions raised in The Master and Margarita is why Margarita remains faithful to the Master. She understands it will bring her down but she persists, knocking on doors in the play to get help in finding her revered Master. The Master keeps his whereabouts unknown because he thinks Margarita should forget him. In Jericho Brown's poem "Why I Cannot Leave You," the poet presents a story of a hungry man who cannot leave the nurture of his lover. The mood of Brown's love story has the feel of a Soviet couple caught in bloody contradictions, not unlike that of the Master and Margarita.

WHY I CANNOT LEAVE YOU

You bring home the food. I'm your hungry man,
Captive damsel dragged by the hair from her favorite
Streetlight to the trap of your tower, hollow icebox,
No magnets with things-to-do. No rules. It wouldn't
Be fair--you bring home the food--you can't read
Or write. I pace, check the window for my hunter. You
Bring home food and toss it onto the card table.
My teeth barely miss my fingertips--I rip
Into the bag. You like to kiss me, my mouth
Packed with the fastest franchise you could find, animal
Blood at each lip. Say carnivore, and I kiss back. I eat
My meat rare. You bare your sharpest grin. Bum
I say I love, you're my place to stay. We're against the law.
No keeps me big as you. Fatten me, sweet ogre.
Get me some meat. Bring home food. Feed.

by Jericho Brown

from Please

Copyright © 2008 Jericho Brown

Comments (2)

I have seen this production and Karren does it justice, thankfully!

Joe Goldberg:

I must say I enjoyed greatly your review of the Master and Margarita performance. So much so I copied it to my friend, who read this work a long time ago, with probably great impact. She is also a devotee of the Georgian Dancers (I say this to provoke her, she insists they are actors doing plays, I say they are dancers doing dances - great dancers have always acted, it is not after all, gymnastics), and basically takes me to every one of them. This one also I did not fully understand in detail (sort of like poetry) until I read your review below.

Though I was prepped for this. When in Moscow in October, I was taken to an incredibly expensive Victorian-style restaurant (the "Writers Club") where reportedly Bulgakov would hang out, or at least take his mistresses. Since I didn't know who B. was, my guide explained it. (All Slavs who can read polysyllabic words have read Bulgakov, I discovered, and beyond them, all former Soviets, as good members of the Russian Empire). Then, some days later, she dragged us through pouring icy rain about 30 minutes to a smaller, more intimate place, a lot of wood inside, called Master and Margarita, much cheaper and more fun, which I highly recommend if you are ever in Moscow. The "jazz", sometimes jazzing up classical interludes, by two violins and a piano, was spectacular, and the food wasn't bad either.

Anyway, more Bulgakov atmosphere (he apparently wrote it there....). Then back in Washington, before the performance, another friend explained Bulgakov and the book in some detail, and the meaning the book had for the whole Communist bloc world, when it was finally published, (by mistake?), in about 1965, long before Glasnost, indeed in a high time of Communist Empire.

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This page contains a single entry from the blog posted on November 22, 2010 4:48 PM.

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