There aren’t a lot of games you can play with a deck of all wild cards, but dammit, the Constellation Theatre Company is gonna try their best.
Have you read Mikhail Bulgakov’s The Master and Margarita? It’s nutz. All about a jolly visit the Devil and his mischievous retinue pay to Soviet-regime Moscow one hot summer in the first half of the 20th century. And also Pontius Pilate dealing with the sentencing and execution of Jesus. And also a pair of lovers, torn apart by circumstance, driven to a mental clinic and thoughts of suicide by their miserable separation. Chaos, as they say, ensues.
Bulgakov’s novel, considered one of the masterpieces of 20th century Russian literature, deliberately elides a number of traditional narrative elements, such as “conflict” or an “antagonist.” Constellation’s adaptation — written by Edward Kemp, directed by Allison Stockman, and going on now until March 3 — tries to hammer it into some form of plot, with mixed results.
The combinations, by and large, are really clever. Merging the roles of Azazello and Hella (two of Satan’s helpers) not only means more lines for women, it creates space for a terrific performance from McLean Fletcher, who can emote even with plastic vampire teeth in her mouth. And the extended back story for the Master (Alexander Strain) and Margarita (Amanda Forstrom) gives those performers time to build a more believable interplay. Their new dialogue isn’t amazing, but they don’t waste the time.
Scott Ward Abernathy feasts happily on the role of Woland, aka Lucifer, without overeating, so he’s given a dessert of playing the head of Pilate’s secret guard. Less solid is the interweaving of the Jerusalem story in general, but no one tell that to Jesse Terrill, whose pitch-perfect performance as the Roman procurator is enough to make anyone want to turn a novel into a play (hmm…).
Louder music! Some of the classical choices are a little obvious, but all of them should be cranked way up. This is Satan’s Ball, after all, make it thunderous!
MVP award does to costume designer Erik Teague, whose work is a thrill from the hats to the shoes, from barley-there revealing outfits to large, flowing robes. I actively want one of his horned masks. A.J. Guban’s lights are great, too, but less so the joyless set, which thinks “red” is enough to look “satanic,” but forgets the fun of all the Faustian satire.
“A host of other quite stupid and incomprehensible things took place,” as Bulgakov writes, but we thankfully skip most of those. Any babies thrown out with the bathwater? I’m not sure, but something does feel missing. The performances are good, and everyone seems to have the right ideas, but perhaps the philosophy is muddled? Character arcs feel less like growth and more like cosmic punchlines. The magic performance and the metaphysical ending aren’t exactly anti-climatic, but neither are they moving.
Manuscripts don’t burn. But they can get the best of you.