The Austin Chronicle


Local Arts Reviews

Reviewed by Rob Curran, May 2, 2003, Arts

The Master and Margarita: Pantomime for an Age of Terror

The Off Center, through May 11

Running Time: 2hrs, 30 min

As only the second U.S. company to stage Richard Helweg and Michael Franco's theatrical version of The Master and Margarita, Mikhail Bulgakov's most celebrated novel, the Gaslight Theater has sound timing. Alas, Bulgakov's tale bewitches its adapters; while their faithful tribute beguiles in places like the original, it runs a little too long and treats the source a little too reverentially. Black comedy, Russian wordplay, the bookish structure -- with so much to translate, something had to give. Fortunately, the play's primary subject, an insane society where the devil is the "foreigner," still takes.

Director Paul Bright adroitly sets up the conflict between reality and fantasy. The scenes in 1940 Moscow -- where unhappily married Margarita (the sensuous and sensitive Emily Kaye) falls in love with a master artist (subtle Jon Wyrick), who has written a novel about Pontius Pilate -- are set downstage. Pilate's agonies over Jesus and Jesus' propagandist Matthew are played as realistic drama upstage. Bright's designs, like Bulgakov's, give life to one of the most told stories ever.

But it's a story that the Soviets labeled as myth, and Stalin banned the supernatural from the streets (even in fiction). State-endorsed critics crucify the master's novel, and in a fit of depression, the writer burns his masterpiece. Blaming herself, Margarita splits with him and, in her distress, makes a pact with the devil. So the Prince of Darkness comes to town.

Craig Clary plays the devil divinely. He attacks the worn-out Communist Party line with guile and charm. Jeff Castleberry, as the materialist editor Berlioz, plays well off his surreal opponent; from his angular hat to his literal wit, the editor personifies concrete.

With the devil and his henchmen, such as bespectacled Koroviev (Tim Jones) and Behemoth the cat (Tom Spry), Bulgakov settles old scores. These lyrical thugs mete out punishment to all the writer's enemies: the editor, a critic, one of Moscow's unhelpful theatre clerks, and a bad poet. "I knew I was in for an odd evening when I saw a great black cat purchase a ticket for the trolley," says the poet (Geoff Pearson) from his new asylum cell.

Still, a sardonic black cat distinguishes itself in a Russian novel. Onstage, a man in a furry animal suit has to compete with generations of pantomime creatures. Similarly, scenes that jump out on the page -- when the devil hypnotizes the Moscow hoi polloi or Margarita's maid rides a pig -- seem obvious when acted.

The underlying autobiography gains urgency in this version, however; love still blooms in the time of paranoia, and great art is still beaten down for dissent. The master's battle to publish his taboo book foreshadows the underground circulation of this work after Bulgakov's death.

"Manuscripts don't burn," says the devil. This production proves that Bulgakov's manuscript -- not officially published for 26 years after completion -- withstood the fires of tyranny. The adaptation might have taken more liberties for more laughs, but it succeeds as a warning to censors and authoritarians: Comic masters like Bulgakov and Nicolai Gogol tend to get the last word. As it says on Gogol's tombstone, "And I shall laugh my bitter laugh."

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