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Synetic Theater The Master and Margarita

By • Nov 16th, 2010 • Category: Reviews
The Master and Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov, adapted by Roland Reed
Synetic Theater
Lansburgh Theatre, Washington DC
Through December 12th
1:35, no intermission
$45-$55
Reviewed November 13th, 2010

It’s not War and Peace. It’s not Crime and Punishment. It’s not Dr. Zhivago. But The Master and Margarita is a big, sprawly Russian novel, teeming with characters and bursting with incidents. But unlike the aforementioned prototypes, M&M is incoherent in terms of theme and plot. Mikhail Bulgakov’s masterwork is a showcase of shifting, disconnected obsessions, on the order of Cervantes’ Don Quixote. It is unlike anything written by such masters of plausibility and relevance as Tolstoy, Dostoyevsky or Pasternak.

The Bulgakov showcase, with its sensational display of wild implausibilities and exuberant irrelevancies, is irresistible for artists bent on spectacular adaptations. It has served as the basis for many, many movies and TV series. There are at least two M&M operas and one ballet. There’s even a graphic novel version. But it is stage artists above all others who can’t keep their hands off of M&M. There are at least a dozen Wikipedia-certified M&M theater plays out there.

Our local virtuosi of stage adaptation, Synetic Theater, presented an M&M six years ago. And now they are offering another production.

Founded by immigrants from Georgia, Synetic is highly suited for dealing with Soviet-era material. Poor Bulgakov (1891-1940) was one of the many idiosyncratic Soviet artists who lived lives of frustration and despair — always at odds with the cultural bureaucrats who were in charge of censorship and enforcing the gospel of “socialist realism.” Socialist and realistic M&M is not. It ridicules aparatchiks. One of Bulgakov’s major characters, Satan, is far preferable to the passive aggressive and actively sadistic powers-that-be spawned by the Soviet system.

For its current M&M production, Synetic is using a new adaptation by Roland Reed, who emphasizes the loss and redemption materials on display in Bulgakov’s diversely stocked showcase. Bulgakov’s grandfather was an Orthodox priest. His father was a theologian. Bulgakov, like Chekhov, was a physician-turned-writer. Like the anti-Soviet novelist Solzhenitzyn Bulgakov found artistic sustenance in Christianity. And a religious family like his could provide plenty of themes and doctrines for literary elaboration.

And then there’s the Faust legend, also an essential element in M&M. Synetic plays it up for all its worth. You may be interested to know that Bulgakov’s Hell offers aerobics accompanied by head-banging din provided by composer Konstantine Lorkipanidze and sound designers Irakli Kavsadze and Paata Tsikurishvili.

Synetic artistic director Tsikurishvili directs M&M. Her also plays the Master. His wife Irina Tsikkurishvili plays Margarita. She also supplies M&M‘s strenuous choreography.

As protagonists, the Master and Margarita are melodramatic. They are people to whom things happen. The Tsikurishvili’s acting style, with its varied forms of agonizing, often gives an appearance of expression exceeding feeling — another habit of melodrama. 

The play’s phantasmagoric story involves the sufferings of the Master, a novelist. First he is tormented intellectually, artistically and emotionally by cultural bureaucrats who reject his novel about those bourgeois decadent characters Jesus and Pilate. Then the Master is tormented physically by secret police. His lover Margarita comes to his rescue. She makes the acquaintance of Satan, who happens to be visiting Moscow in the guise of a stage magician. One thing leads to another, ending with a sort of redemption, resurrection and (vaguely) happy ending.

As will always happen when Satan is offered a role in a work of art, the hammy devil steals the show. This has been going on since Genesis, Paradise Lost and … name a contemporary diabolical politician of your own choosing.

Synetic’s Satan, Armand Sindoni (a Lenin look-alike) is affably evil. He is also an impressive magician. Even more impressive are Philip Fletcher and Alex Mills as Satan’s chief minions, Behemoth (a cat man) and Azazello (a mutant tempter). With blackened, pierced nipples and a steel-studded cod piece, Fletcher is erotically sinister. With a squeaky voice and a painful-to-watch array of contortions (he can bend over backwards and walk on all fours), Mills is always unnerving.

Satan and his minions test Margarita’s resolve by having her preside over a demonic fiesta featuring living dead dancers right out of a low-budget zombie movie. After flogging the zombies, Satan makes amends with an enthusiastically received human sacrifice.

All of the excesses of expressionistic theater are heightened by surreal settings and costumes by Anastasia Rurikov Simes. A notable detail is technically impressive on-stage beheading. There are two of these, one caused by a trolley car the other by a magic spell. The various magic show illusions, designed by Jeramie Bellmay, are really quite entertaining.

As a splashy, flashy theater spectacle, Synetic’s M&M is incomparable. As an ideological denunciation of totalitarianism, it is unimpeachable. But how about emotionally engaging drama with complex characters and compelling events that one cares about deeply? No. M&M suffers from the generic deficiencies of stories involving Hell, Dante’s Inferno included. Hell is so, well, hellish — stunted, static, eternally unchanging; gaudy, maybe, but essentially undramatic. All the flames not withstanding, Hell is frozen.

Director’s Note

Any adaptation of Mikhail Bulgakov’s controversial and sprawling masterwork The Master and Margarita presents numerous, daunting challenges. Not only are expectations high among bulgakov devotees as this is, perhaps, his most famous and personal novel, but it also remains one of the most unique literary works of the past century.

Written between 1928 and 1940, The Master and Margrita reflects the atmosphere of absolutes despotism and extreme repression-a tyranny that invaded every facet off life, from the political, economic and social to the artistic aspects. In such a crippling environment, artists like Bulgakov could sometimes only fully express themselves through grotesque and absurdist fantasy, subtly (and sometimes not so subtly) exposing the hypocrisy and contradictions of the state-sanctioned ideology in which they and so many others were trapped.

Bulgakov’s fantastical treatment of the Soviet Union-the exotic fusion of text, startling ima gery, humor, and the supernatural-lends itself perfectly to Synetic’s heightened style. We have chosen to embrace the absurdist elements of this story and highlight The Master’s (and Bulgakov’s) own artistic and religious struggle. There, in the novel’s setting, many found the peace and permanence of death preferable to the miserable uncertainty of life: a life in which you, your relatives and friends could simply disappear, never to be herd from again. Yet, a story seemingly swallowed up in death, despair, torture and imprisonment ultimately transforms into clear-eyed celebration of love, faith and freedom, symbolized by the undying love of the Master for his inspiration, Margarita, and illustrated by the Master’s own work – his novel of Jesus (Yeshua) and Pontius Pilate: an unashamed monument to rebirth, of life triumphantly rising from death and tyranny.

I woul lik to thank Michael Kahn for welcoming Synetic back to the Landsburgh thia season, for not just one production, but for two. When selecting plays the Landsburgh leg of our 10th anniversary season, I knew that The Master and Margarita would complement th work produced by Shakespeare Theatre Company, giving DC audiences the opportunity to experience a rarely adapted classic. This Spring, Synetic will bring our seventh wordless Shakespearean adaptation to the Landsburgh: King Lear.

As always, many thanks to my actors and design team for their extraordinary dedication, patience and skill in making this production possible, as well to our audiences, donors, volunteers, staff and the Washington, DC, theater community as a whole for their ongoing generosity, encouragement, and support.

Finally, I would like to announce that Synetic has been selected as one of 10 theaters to receive the 2010 National Theatre Company Grant from the American Theatre Wing, Founder of the Tony Awards, for nurturing a community of artists that stregthen and demonstrate the quality, diversity and dynamism of American theater. So, enjoy the performance and experience the best in American physical theater!

Paata Tsikurishvili
Founding Artistic Director
Synetic Theater

Cast

  • Master: Paata Tsikurishvili
  • Margarita: Irina Tsikurishvili
  • Bezdommy: Ryan Sellers
  • Berlioz: Chris Dinolfo
  • Detective: Ben Russo
  • Voland: Armand Sindoni
  • koroviev: Scott Brown
  • Behemoth: Philip Fletcher
  • Azazello: Alex Mills
  • Hella: Sarah Taurchini
  • Emcee/Bengalsky: Richie Pepio
  • Pontius Pilate: Richie Pepio
  • Yeshua: Ben Russo
  • Caiaphas: Chris Galindo
  • Ensemble: Katherine Frattini, Shana Greensbaum, Lauren Elizabeth Kieler
  • Master Understudy: Dan Istrate

Crew

  • Directed by: Paata Tsikurishvili
  • Choreographed by: Irina Tsikurishvili
  • Set, Costumes, and properties Design by: Anastasia Rurikov Simes
  • Lighting Design by: Colin K. Bills
  • Original Music by: Konstantine Lortkipanidze
  • Sound Design by: Irakli Kavsadze and Paata Tsikurishvili
  • Stage Manager: Erin Baxter
  • Literary Assistant: Nathan Weinberger
  • Vocal Coach: Elizabeth van den berg
  • Magic Consultant: David London
  • Assistant, Set, Costumes, and Properties: Corey Searles
  • Assistant Lighting Designer: Jen Reiser
  • Assistant Vocal Coach: Mike Anderson
  • Assistant Stage Manager: Katie Chance
  • Photographer/Graphic Designer: Graeme B. Shaw
  • Videographer: Abby Sternberg
  • Additional Music: Giya Kancheli, Alfred Schnittke and Russian folk music
  • Technical Director: Phil Charlwood
  • Production Manager: Valerie Halstead
  • Set Construction: Brandon Carey
  • Set Construction: Diana Cramer
  • Costume Construction: Irina Evans, Azura Hassan, Yuliya Kolesnik, Cristal Stevens, Elvina, Verzhichinskaya
  • Illusion Design and Construction: Jeramie Bellmay

Disclaimer: Synetic Theater provided two complimentary media tickets to ShowBizRadio for this review.

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lives in Arlington with his wife, daughter, son-in-law and two grandchildren. Before retiring last year at age 70, he was theater critic at the Seattle Post-Intelligencer for 27 years. Prior to that, he reviewed plays for the Philadelphia Bulletin, the Texas Observer and the Swarthmore College Phoenix. Non-reviewing journalistic jobs include writing for the Houston Chronicle, the San Juan (Puerto Rico) Star and El Mundo de San Juan. Think about it: most of the papers he worked for no longer exist. Maybe this internet gig has better longevity prospects.

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