By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca
The Master & Margarita: the remix (Stage 35, La Cité francophone theatre)
It can’t possibly be by coincidence that Seattle’s theatre simple has returned after 22 years to their vivid stage version of The Master & Margarita, the vast underground ‘30s novel by the Russian renegade Mikhail Bulgakov.
After all it’s a new adrenalized age of improbability and craziness in the world; it’s harder than ever to separate the mad and the sane, hallucination from reality. And the forces of orthodoxy that banned the novel right through the ‘60s seem to be re-gaining traction. The moment is right for “the remix.”
Bulgakov’s satire is a phantasmagorical whirl, backwards and forwards at speed, through the Moscow of the ‘30s, its asylums and its writers’ guild salons, its fancy balls and burlesque cabarets. The Devil (Monique Kleinhans as the mysteriously worldly foreign Professor Woland) has showed up in Moscow to assess whether Stalinism has fundamentally changed human nature. He’s also there to recruit a hostess for his annual Devil’s Ball; the distinguished guest list includes the murderous likes of Lucrezia Borgia, Lizzie Borden, Caligula.
The Master (Teague M. Parker) has been working on a novel about Pontius Pilate; Llysa Holland conjures the latter as a world-weary, exasperated sort whose job is giving him a headache. The Master’s muse, the lovely Margarita (Jennifer Faulkner), becomes invisible, and flies through the air, naked, to the devil’s big bash. A poet (Nathan Brockett) goes mad, leaps naked into the river and gets taken to an asylum. A magical talking black cat performs at a cabaret. There are crucifixions and beheadings. Heaven and hell get discussed; side trips are arranged. Never let it be said there’s nothing to do in Moscow; it’s busy.
The low-budget theatrical stage savvy of the troupe propels a dexterous five-actor ensemble (along with two real live onstage musicians armed with an original score) through three intersecting story lines, and populates them with three dozen-plus characters (and minimal exposition).
There’s stagecraft to match. And it still strikes me, after all these years, as pure Fringe. Zippered elastic screens open and get reconfigured. Characters are thrust forward or yanked back through the openings, to emerge transformed. In nightmares heads bulge through the walls and become skulls; shadows flickers behind them. Lamp posts get tilted and carried, to change the scene. The action almost never pauses.
The story is intricate to the point of chaos, and there are moments when the scrambling loses the narrative. But the storytelling has the kind of theatrical liveliness that rewards ingenuity. That’s what the Fringe is for.