Bulgakov/Moliere: Theater Review

Paul M. Rubenstein
An ambitious conflation of two writers central to the City Garage vision reiterates too much of its past work to bring many fresh insights, despite a revelatory introduction to one of Bulgakov’s rarely performed plays. 

A satire of creativity under the Russian Stalinist regime.

In the real world, does integrity merely consist of managing to compromise just enough to get what you desire, while permitting yourself not to feel compromised? So the Devil rather persuasively argues in this often pointed, intricately conceived set of nested Matryoshka dolls depicting three different epochs, each worthy of political ridicule, each considering the role of the artist as provocateur, repressed both by forces from without and within.   

In 1929 disfavored Soviet writer Mikhail Bulgakov (David E. Frank), unable to have his plays performed, composed a personal letter to Stalin imploring permission to emigrate if he could not function in his homeland as an artist. In this play-within-a-play adapted by company Producing Director Charles A. Duncombe (Caged, The Mission (Accomplished), The Trojan Women), phantasmagorical characters from Bulgakov’s novel The Master and the Margarita, led by the Mephistophelian Professor Woland (Nathan Dana Aldrich), assume the role of the secret police to arrest Bulgakov and force him to witness a performance of his banned, and therefore unproduceable, satire Moliere, or the Cabal of Hypocrites.

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Bulgakov depicts Moliere (George Villas) as an aging roue and unrepentant critic of sanctimonious censorship and spurious orthodoxy, and the parallels to the Soviet police state are unmistakable. As Moliere fawningly curries favor with Louis XIV (Alex Pike) to secure his patronage, so too does Bulgakov suffer an ambivalent need to be true to himself while genuflecting for Stalin’s approval. And like Moliere abandoning his longtime mistress and partner Madeleine Bejart (Kat Johnson) for the troupe ingenue Armande (Nili Rain Segal), Bulgakov is attempting to leave his longtime married lover (also Segal) behind as he burns the first manuscript of his novel and prepares to leave the country or descend into penury.

Duncombe, in turn, gilds the lily by updating many of the references within the 17th century French setting of the Moliere story to baldly mimic contemporary critiques of hypocritical religious zealots enforcing phony moral pieties to gain political power. While the parallels are generally inarguable among reasonable minds, this can create thudding anachronisms, such as the very Catholic King Louis receiving religious dictation from an unregenerate evangelic Protestant demagogue Reverend Goodman (Aldrich again).

Something of a grand synthesis of City Garage’s recent projects involving each playwright, this ambitious and handsome effort receives the full house trademark treatment under the direction of Frederique Michel, continuing to employ their well-attuned new digs at Bergamot as inspiration for more involved layers of action that can communicate greater dimension of themes. Following her singular theatrical vision adds nuance with each iteration of their variations on their established devices, always complemented by Duncombe’s felicitous set and lighting design.

On the other hand, this is their fourth trip to the well of Moliere in six years, and their production earlier this season of Steven Leigh MorrisMoskva also tackled Bulgakov’s novel with updated references. This second bite at the apple may amplify the company’s take on him while rather more strenuously belaboring the contemporary ironies.

In short, while Bulgakov’s play itself is often dazzling (Moliere has always made a compelling subject, most notably in the memorable Ariane Mnouchkine Théâtre du Soleil 1978 biopic), and the framing device sometimes revealing, City Garage has done similar work before, and better. Usually determinedly lean and concentrated, Duncombe and Michel repeat both their better (and lesser) insights so often in this frankly far overlong rendition that it progressively loses much of its passion and surprise as the narrative works itself out.

Many actors accomplished in more conventional styles have been heard to dismiss the thesping at City Garage without understanding that the determined eccentricity and process of delivery and movement completely serves a total conception of a peculiar yet satisfyingly original sense of ensemble that can render individual praise beside the point. Nevertheless, let us take a moment to appreciate Villas, a new face to this company, who makes a thoroughgoingly charismatic Moliere, and RJ Jones, appearing in his third City Garage show this season, essays five highly distinctive cameos, mostly of Duncombe’s invention, that invest what could have been caricatures with a demonic comic energy that supercharges his every scene.

Venue: City Garage, Bergamot Station, Santa Monica (runs through June 1)

Cast: George Villas,David E. Frank, Nathan Dana Aldrich, Alex Pike, Nili Rain Segal, Andy Fitzgerald, RJ Jones, Bo Roberts, Kat Johnson, Renee Ulloa-McDonald, Jeremy Lelliott, Megan Kim, Jordan Kurtzman, Jeffrey Gardner

Director: Frederique Michel

Playwright: Charles A. Duncombe, based on the play “Moliere” and on characters from the novel “The Master and the Margarita,: both by Mikhail Bulgakov

Producer, production designer, set & lighting designer: Charles A. Duncombe

Costume designer: Josephine Poinsot

Sound designer: Paul Rubenstein 

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