Review of The Master and Margarita at Yale School of Drama Mikhail Bulgakov’s The Master and Margarita has to be one of the more mercurial plays I’ve ever seen. And why not? It’s really a novel—and a rather unique one at that—that was adapted for the stage by Edward Kemp. Directed by Sara Holdren, MFA candidate in Directing at YSD, the sprawling production at the Iseman Theater is amusing, sensual, metaphysical, magical, grotesque and beautiful—presenting us with a dark night of the soul in a writer’s life, a situation that involves Faustian parallels, including a bargain with the Devil, and becomes, in the hands of this visually stunning production, a meditation on the intersections of theater and reality.
A Soviet playwright known only as the Master (Ato Blankson-Wood) grapples with staging a work on the trial of Jesus—here called Yeshua (Chasten Harmon)—before Pilate (James Cusati-Moyer). He runs afoul of the Soviet authorities—it’s the era of Stalin—in the form of a smug committee-man named Berlioz (Aaron Bartz) and his lackey Ivan, a proletarian playwright (Christopher Geary), and faces the consequences of his metaphysical speculations. Meanwhile he has encountered a married femme fatale, Margarita (Ariana Venturi), who becomes his lover and muse and his advocate before the devil—who arrives disguised as a German magician called Woland (Aaron Luis Profumo) when he hears Margarita say she would give her soul to save the Master from being “vanished.”
The play’s present tense action occasionally includes the rehearsals of the play Pontius Pilate, but the scenes from the latter—even after the Master burns his manuscript—take on a life of their own, commenting on the action and intertwined with it. At times the Master becomes a double for Yeshua, with the obvious theme of persecution by the State uniting their ordeals. But Pilate also becomes a double for the Master as the Procurate’s efforts to master the situation and to understand the consequences of his acts—for history and for the ultimate meaning of existence—parallel the playwright’s struggles with his materials and with his time. To say nothing of struggling with love of his life and the forces of darkness. Blankson-Wood’s Master seems remarkably clear and self-contained in the midst of this play’s wildness.
As the forces of darkness, Woland and his retinue provide much of that spirit. If God is in the details, then we might say the devil is in the diversions. Everything that humans strive to control—whether it be the Master with his play or the authorities with all forms of interaction—the infernal troupe plays havoc with. As Woland, Profumo exudes “the man of wealth and taste” that Mick Jagger considers the Devil to be, and his chat on a park bench with Berlioz and Ivan is fraught with comic tension. Later, a series of pranks and tricks before a red curtain are played with the zest of a Faustian Walpurgisnacht. The supernatural extremes involve decapitations, an enormous cat called Behemoth (Zenzi Williams in a highly active performance) that terrorizes and pouts alternately, and a rakish chap Koroviev, played by Maura Hooper with perfected sangfroid. Azazello, the demon who attends Margarita, is played by Matt Raich as a sullen and sinister messenger, clad in black leather.
The wild card in all this, of course, is Woman. As the Master’s “Gretchen,” Margarita is no fallen woman sacrificed as in Goethe, but rather a fully cognizant catalyst. She takes “standing by her man” to the point of becoming a satanic consort. Venturi’s Margarita is adamant where the Master, nearly broken, would be swayed from his task. This is a tour de force performance by Venturi who displays the full range of Margarita’s investment in the Master, even to upbraid him late in the play. What’s more, Venturi acts in the nude whenever Margarita becomes “a witch” for the purpose of tempting the Master to the devil’s side, making “the flesh” a feature of this pageant in a very deliberate way. Margarita’s flight to Woland is breathtaking and then, in the company of his retinue, she presides over an eerie ball attended by the wonderfully costumed ghosts—think Day of the Dead—of major killers and evil-doers.
Eventually, the various levels of the play come to reside in the mind of poor Ivan who has been committed to an asylum after seeing Berlioz’s death at Behemoth’s paws, and who finally believes the play to have been hallucinations of which he has been cured. An element of autobiography presents itself as we may imagine Bulgakov both fantasizing an escape from Moscow, such as the Master and Margarita enjoy with the help of the devil, as well as the sad fate of a writer unable to claim his visions, like Ivan. And I haven’t even mentioned all the fun with telegraphs and trains and phones as Bulgakov explores the demonic aspects of technology.
This very ambitious production attempts to do justice to all the riches of this complex play, capturing its comic touches—such as theater-making with the foppish director Styopa (Cornelius Davidson) or Berlioz’s live head brought in on a platter—as well as the weighty emotions of Pilate’s struggle with his fate. As the almost-tragic hero of the Master’s play, Cusati-Moyer registers both Pilate’s hauteur and his helplessness. And as Ivan, Geary runs a gamut of manner, first as a comic treatment of the proponent of social realism who loses it completely when faced with the supernatural, then as a stand-in for the gospeller Matthew, the source of the Master’s play, and finally as the figure who stands for the writer, beset by the contrary demands of the spirit and the State, of the flesh and the fantastic.
The Master and Margarita displays the finesse of its large cast and perhaps even more so the technical talent brought to bear on this lively phantasmagoria: Fabian Fidel Aguilar’s splendid costumes, Andrew F. Griffin’s artful lighting, Sinan Zafar’s effective score and work in sound, the projections by Rasean Davonte Johnson that transform the backdrop into various illustrative settings—Yalta complete with flying geese, or glimpses of Objectivist art become illustrative—and Christopher Thompson’s scenic design creates distinct spaces with both vertical and horizontal interest—such as a rotating stage matched with a hanging hoop—while the use of various points of entrance and exit from above, the sides, and at the back, makes the space team with energy.
The best proof of the method in the madness of Holdren’s faithful adaptation of Bulgakov’s challenging text—kudos as well to dramaturg Helen C. Jaksch—is that the show runs for three hours plus without losing its audience or dragging out its business. While some segments might have been trimmed without loss of effect, the staging of the work’s entirety makes this Master and Margarita a showcase of invention and talent, as it takes great resources of both to pull this off this well.
In a word, amazing.
Mikhail Bulgakov’s The Master and Margarita Adapted by Edward Kemp Directed by Sara Holdren
Scenic Designer: Christopher Thompson; Costume Designer: Fabian Fidel Aguilar; Lighting Designer: Andrew F. Griffin; Composition and Sound Design: Sinan Zafar; Projection Designer: Rasean Davonte Johnson; Production Dramaturg: Helen C. Jaksch; Stage Manager: Emely Selina Zepeda
Cast: Aaron Bartz; Ato Blankson-Wood; James Cusati-Moyer; Cornelius Davidson; Christopher Geary; Chasten Harmon; Maura Hooper; Tiffany Mack; Aaron Luis Profumo; Matt Raich; Ariana Venturi; Zenzi Williams
Yale School of Drama Iseman Theater October 21-25, 2014