Synetic Theater is following up on their muscular rendition of King Arthur with something a bit more cerebral. Actually, a lot more cerebral, with not one but two men losing their heads onstage. Joking aside, it’s hard for me to know how to judge The Master and Margarita, playing through December 12 at the Lansburgh Theatre. As the company revisits its 2004 production of the Mikhail Bulgakov novel with a new adaptation by Roland Reed, all the usual elements we’ve come to expect and love from Synetic are in full force – extremely beautiful design, powerful physical visuals, and dramatic intensity. Putting these talents at the service of a densely intellectual story, mostly unfamiliar to American audiences, is the kind of risky undertaking I certainly admire. Yet somehow, I felt like I was watching a diamond – exquisite, but cold.
In his director’s notes, Paata Tsikurishvili says “we have chosen to embrace the absurdist elements of his story and highlight the Master’s (and Bulgakov’s) own artistic and religious struggle.” Esoteric struggles work in literary terms – but do they translate well to physical action and is the audience able to connect?
On the surface we have ninety minutes of stunning production visuals, especially the work of Anastasia Rurikov Simes, whose set and costumes are an eerie evocation of a surreal Soviet Union – like watching propaganda posters come to life through the prism of The Red Shoes. The Master, played by Paata Tsikurishvili after a long absence from the stage, is bedeviled by the repressive regime for his unfinished novel on Pontius Pilate. His imprisonment separates him from his muse, Margarita (choreographer Irina Tsikurishvili), unites him with a fellow tortured poet in a madhouse of true horror, and bludgeons him mercilessly by police state brutality of the most shocking kind. Why? He believes people need faith, and his artistic mission is at odds with the atheistic government.
At least, I think that’s it. There’s also the devil himself, leering above all, friend and foe in equal measure. As Voland, Armand Sindoni is the spitting image of Stalin Lenin(except for those red goathair pants, of course). Pontius Pilate makes a rather poignant appearance (Richie Pepio), as does Jesus Christ himself (or rather Yeshua, facelessly performed by Ben Russo), as the subject matter of both the Master and poet Bezdomny’s works. As the poet, Ryan Sellers has a horrifically humorous encounter with the devil Voland that is the stuff of every anxiety nightmare.
The lynchpin of the story is Margarita’s quest to release the Master, by entering into a deal with the devil and his minions. And what crazy minions! Alex Mills and Philip Fletcher are evil demons Azazello and Behemoth, with Mills backbending thru reality while Fletcher’s creepy cat in gothic dance boots oozes feline sensuality. There’s a demonic variety act with audience humiliation (faux audience, don’t worry) and a zombie ball where Margarita gives her all to please the devil and his insatiable horde. It’s all striking to look at it.
But what does it add up to, meaning or more question marks? Do we care about the Master and Margarita? Why does the devil want a hostess with the name Margarita specifically, why are the mentions of French royal blood (Queen Margot? Mary Magdalene?) so integral to her role? Why is the devil helping them at all? Is it better to believe in the devil than to believe in nothing at all? Is lack of faith really an automatic road to despotism? Do these questions matter? Essentially, I’m unsure whether the production intends to raise the questions in the audience’s mind – perfectly fine with me – or is simply being incoherent.
In the end, though I found specific moments moving (especially the evocation of the creative process between writer and muse), overall I felt removed, as if there were a glass up between performance and audience. You may feel differently. Celebrating its tenth anniversary season, I understand why Synetic chose to mount one of the plays that originally made its name. I’m just not sure that’s what I want to see now.
Synetic Theater’s The Master and Margarita is playing at the Lansburgh Theatre, located at 450 7th Street NW, Washington DC 20004. Closest Metro stop: Gallery Place/Chinatown (Red/Yellow/Green lines) or Archives/Navy Memorial (Yellow/Green lines). For more information call 703.824.8060