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Chariots of hell charging the audience at full gallop, a pair of comic decapitations, a ghoulish vaudeville act, a flaying and crucifixion, a suicidal plunge into a river, and a stagewide conflagration that consumes a whole novel’s worth of dancing animated words—all before intermission. Roland Reed’s adaptation of Mikhail Bulgakov’s long–banned– in–the–Soviet Union novel, The Master and Margarita, takes audiences deep into Synetic territory—a sort of intellectual Cirque du Disneyworld where economy of expression in no way suggests paucity of ideas.
“What you have just witnessed,” stammers a nervous Emcee after one of his screaming compatriots has been twisted into a pretzel, “is an act of mass hypnosis,” and in that phrase, he pretty much nails the troupe’s ethos. The Synetic Theater traffics in rapturously surrealist stagecraft, with productions that generally suggest a mix of dance and silent film, but are more than just visually adventurous. Hamlet…The Rest Is Silence was wordless Shakespeare, The Crackpots a comic fable about overcoming repression. Now, The Master and Margarita manages the not inconsiderable task of animating Bulgakov’s satirical fantasy about creative and religious contradictions in anti-artistic, atheistic Stalin-era Moscow.
The evening gets under way when a soft-spoken, erudite Devil (Armand Sindoni), freshly arrived from Hell, interrupts a critic (Nathan Weinberger) and a poet (Mike Spara) who are arguing about religious satire. When the critic asserts that Jesus never existed, the Devil begs to differ, and the men’s eyes widen when he mentions a conversation he once had with Pontius Pilate. Before long, the critic’s head and body lie on opposite sides of a streetcar and the Devil is leading the poet on an odyssey that takes them from ancient Jerusalem to a Soviet asylum’s straitjacket. In the asylum, the poet encounters a novelist known as the Master (Paata Tsikurishvili), who tells him a tale that sounds autobiographical—about an innocent novelist cruelly separated from his true love, Margarita (Irina Tsikurishvili), and from his manuscript.
Act 2, which finds the Devil tempting Margarita, includes a nifty cloth-mirror striptease, a monsters’ ball, a cosmic joyride on gossamer wings, and a sexily androgynous cat (Miguel Jarquin-Moreland) playing global chess with life-size pawns and kings. The imagery is pretty stunning, often managed by designers Anastasia Ryurikov Simes and Colin K. Bills with little more than billowing bolts of cloth and kaleidoscopic lighting effects, backed up by eerie music. And periodically, the director comes up with a moment to catch you emotionally unawares: The Master’s eyes glazing over as he remembers his lost love, the Cheshire-cat grin that crosses the puss of the Devil’s right-hand kitten, the startled expression on the face of a bodiless head as its skull is plucked out to be used as a blood-filled goblet. Small wonder that every time the spotlight narrows to a tight focus and the shadows fill with scurrying black-clad performers, a shiver of anticipation runs through the auditorium. The Rosslyn Spectrum has never seemed a terribly intimate theater, but when the Tsikurishvilis (director Paata, choreographer Irina) start conjuring, you’d swear they were working entirely in close-up.
This is not the first D.C. staging of this tale. The Rorschach Theatre took a valiant stab at it in a Columbia Heights church last year, with much scenery, many more words, and decidedly mixed results. After seeing that version, I confess I’m astonished that an evening so compact and arresting can be wrestled from so sprawling a story. Credit Reed’s spare, graceful script, an eerie soundtrack assembled by Irakli Kavsadze and the director, and the Synetic company’s distinctive way with visuals.
It’s worth noting that the troupe has matured substantially in the two seasons since it broke from Stanislavsky Theater Studio and took up residence in Northern Virginia. The performance level has grown steadily more accomplished, and the Tsikurishvilis are now strengthening administrative operations that they had evidently found time- and energy-sapping. With this production, Synetic Theater begins a partnership with another Arlington company, the Classika Theatre, which has organizational capabilities that complement Synetic’s artistic ones. If The Master and Margarita is any indication of how their collaboration works, area audiences are in for quite a ride.
The friends Nicky Silver pictures in his antic comedy The Altruists are relentless do-gooders. They’ve never met a cause they wouldn’t march for, be it gay rights, abortion rights, war, peace, welfare reform, whatever. Radicals at heart, they’re disorganized enough not to pose much of a threat to the things they oppose, but they oppose them fervently.
That includes Sydney (Allyson Currin), a shallow chatterbox of a soap-opera actress who is this mostly impoverished group’s sugar mommy. She’s an idiot—”There is dignity, profound dignity in my work,” she announces to no one in particular while clumping around in her underwear and one high-heeled shoe—but an amusing one. Then, in a fury over some imagined slight or other, she fires three bullets into the body of her sleeping boyfriend, Ethan.
Clearly, this is a problem, so she dashes over to see her brother, Ronald (Jesse Terrill), a social worker who would happily help her if he weren’t so consumed with love for a cute male hustler (Scott Kerns) he’s taken to bed and is determined to reform. Their friend Cybil (Eva Salvetti), a Latina lesbian who seems to sleep almost exclusively with men, is also no help. Ethan (Jason Lott) eventually shows up, alive and well, but having found a dead body in his bed, so things are hardly any more settled than before.
Silver’s plot is designed to show up the hypocrisy of all these folks in an affectionate way that won’t be too off-putting to the liberal do-gooders who are likely to make up the play’s audience. That makes the evening more than a little squishy at its center, but it doesn’t diminish the snap of its one-liners, which are delivered, in Christopher Janson’s assertively rapid-fire staging for the Catalyst Theater Company, by a cast that knows how to land the punch in a punch line.
The play isn’t nearly as caustic as Fat Men in Skirts, The Food Chain, or Free Will and Wanton Lust, the anarchic comedies with which the Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company brought Silver to the attention of D.C. audiences, but it shares a frenetic quality with them that’s refreshing enough to make it an early-summer hit for Catalyst. CP