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In Edward Kemp’s adaptation of the genre-defying 1967 novel The Master and Margarita, the devil is in just about everything.
He’s the subject of characters’ philosophical discussions, their works of fiction, their meetings with psychiatrists. He’s also on the streets of Moscow, arranging the decapitations of intellectual foes, and hosting a cult-like orgy in the apartment of a nonbeliever.
In the world of author Mikhail Bulgakov’s Soviet Russia, almost everyone is a nonbeliever: Atheism and cultural homogeneity reign supreme, and to buck that tradition means social ostracization, or worse. The Master and Margarita challenges this thinking in a skewering satire of this slice of Soviet political life, telling the story of what happens to the capital’s normcore elite when the devil himself comes to town.
It’s a clever show that, like Bulgakov’s work, is always one step ahead of the viewer.
More than Bulgakov’s story does, Kemp’s play largely hinges on one scene: the moment when, by happenstance, the pseudonymous Master (Alexander Strain)—a lonely, polylinguistic historian, hard at work on a play about the adjudication of the trial of Jesus—bumps into the effervescent Margarita (Amanda Forstrom) on a busy Moscow street. Theirs is an at-first-glance kind of love, and the pair are almost hostile with anticipation and a preternatural familiarity.
This relationship provides the emotional bedrock for the story, with Margarita serving as the Master’s greatest spiritual and intellectual champion as he navigates professional crises (Am I as talented an auteur as I hope?) and psychic ones (Have I hallucinated my encounters with Satan, or is he stalking me?).
Constellation Theatre Company’s production mostly revolves around the will-they/won’t-they drama of Margarita and the Master, a nickname bestowed on him by his beloved, after he is shuttled off to a psychiatric facility over the contents of his play, which his colleagues consider a much too sympathetic look at Jesus’ final days.
This spare adaptation lends itself well to Source’s intimate black box, and director Allison Arkell Stockman oversees it handily. Clever blocking and stylish lighting allow the cast to tik-tok between the Master’s play on one side of the stage and the Master himself on the other. The dual narratives play off each each other nicely, and it’s a sophisticated way to fold the master’s play—presented as a novel in an entire chapter in Bulgakov’s work—onto the stage.
Strain plays the Master with heartening idealism that veers occasionally into the saccharine, and Forstrom complements him as the forceful Margarita. Each plays their part ably, with moments of real clarity, though their initial meeting feels not quite right—perhaps too concerned with lust, and not enough sense of the kind of intimacy that could make, for example, a woman turn to the devil for help freeing her soulmate.
Pure delight is Satan himself, who operates under the disguise of Professor Woland (Scott Ward Abernathy), a teacher of magic, and his coterie of acolytes, which include a manic black cat (Louis E. Davis) and an impish lothario (Dallas Tolentino). Abernathy’s unstudied, mischievous ease is a natural and recognizable take on the character; it feels familiar, and he turns expertly from humor to menace. This crew is genuinely funny and mad, and I found myself wishing there was more of them in the show.
Constellation bills its show as a “powerful indictment of corrupt government and authoritarian rule,” but it comes across as more of an indictment of the corrupt on a much smaller scale: the hive mind of indolent magazine editors and intellectual elites who spend their hours talking masturbatory circles around each other, de facto censoring Master and his play.
In one particularly memorable scene, during Woland-cum-Satan’s inaugural performance of magic, these players—themselves atheist and effectively responsible for the Master’s imprisonment—lunge greedily after the devil’s money, convulsing for trays of jewels and dresses he makes appear.
It’s not an unsubtle metaphor. But even if it’s not what it set out to be, The Master and Margarita lands in a place that doesn’t feel too different than where we find ourselves now, despite the new century and different continent. Like hell and its proprietor, Bulgakov’s work is eternal.
To March 10 at 1835 14th Street NW. $29–$71. (202) 204-7800. constellationtheatre.org.