Moskva: Theater Review

Paul M. Rubenstein
Interesting embroidery on famed Russian novel well suits the talents of the City Garage troupe.

A Stalin-era Soviet satire is updated for Putin's Russia and staged in Santa Monica.

Written over the last 12 years of the life of Mikhail Bulgakov, its manuscript once burned by the author and seemingly impossible to publish, The Master and Margarita was suppressed and still heavily censored when it finally appeared, in both Russian and English translations, in 1967, long after his 1940 death. An immediate classic, since then it has been the object of many stage and screen adaptations. Its sprawling symbolic fancies resist any effort to encompass it whole, and longtime LA Weekly theater critic Steven Leigh Morris has sagely felt unconstrained to construct his own free gloss of individual variations on its motifs, characters and themes and found sympathetic support from the City Garage company’s imaginatively epigrammatic approach to epic staging.

I’m of the conviction that practitioners of the art under consideration can render the most valuable criticism, and active involvement in the craft can impart an indispensable empathy so crucial to a perception into process, from which enlightened evaluation can proceed. For decades, Morris has been one of the prime forces animating the maturing of the local theater scene, not least because his high standards are grounded on a fundamental appreciation of all it takes to write and mount a show.

The primary conceit of Morris’ version is to abandon the period trappings and political specificity of the Stalin era and transpose the central story to Putin’s contemporary Russia, replete with references to the assassination of reporter Anna Politkovskaya, oligarchs created by “privatization,” suppressed dissent, rigged elections, and “Chechen terrorists” invoked as shorthand to disguise the destructive skullduggery of the secret service FSB against its own people. A great deal of this switch goes down surprisingly well, despite adding yet more intractable anachronisms to the unruly plot, much of it relies on relatively facile generalizations. While Putin can well be construed as a logical descendent of the Soviet totalitarian state, his depredations do amount to relatively near beer after the atrocities of the 1930s purges and terror to which Bulgakov was subject and resistant. And while commonalities do echo between the direction Russia has taken and that to which the United States may be trending, they remain far from inevitably, or even accurately, congruent.

Curlicues of insight intermittently waft through the text, often resulting from the collision of Morris’ genial inventions and more generous spirit with Bulgakov’s own radical intellectual and spiritual nostalgia. The comparison is unquestionably unfair, but nevertheless, alongside the raw anger, seething protest, shock detail and ferocious discipline of Vladimir Shcherban’s Minsk 2001: A Reply to Kathy Acker, on view earlier this year at the Segerstrom Center for the Arts in Orange County, this critique of Russian political and civic society must seem aesthetically genteel and without bite.

Ironically, the most riveting sequences are the flashbacks to the trial and execution of Yeshua Ha-Notsri (Justin Davanzo) – more familiarly known as Jesus of Nazareth, though I’d prefer to deploy his birth name Yehoshua Ben-Yosef – and the consequences of his encounter with the riven soul of the Procurator Pontius Pilate (Nathan Dana Aldrich). Bulgakov’s more historical take on the touchstone tale eliminates the Crucifixion for more prosaic hanging and depicts the future St. Matthew (Erol Dolen) as a sole befuddled apostle, a renounced and unreliable narrator of any future gospel. Morris engagingly identifies the year as 33 C.E. (Jewish-speak for the sectarian A.D.) and instills edge-of-the-seat tension to Bulgakov’s blasphemous yet devotional interpretation of the story.

This might well be the most challenging scale of any production yet essayed by the indefatigable City Garage, unthinkable in its former namesake digs, though no more ambitious than its usual fare. Director Frederique Michel marshals the game ensemble through a marathon of complicated expressive body movements, and with relatively spare if decadent decoration conjures up the elaborate fantasia of the original.

The surrealist impulse can be stubborn to realize onstage without literalizing it, although these hands are all confident with their expressive vocabulary. While Morris approximates a Russian idiom in his playfully flavorful patterns of speech, the production overall takes refuge in an accent more Western (Franco-German) than Slavic.  Not that there’s anything wrong with that. It boasts instead an internal consistency of tone and vision that may deviate little from the emblematic house style (of muted primary colors, ritualistic obesience to a personally significant sense of gesture and rhythm, and unabashed deployment of nudity). Yet given the amplified scope and spectacle, it still represents a signal accomplishment in accompaniment to Morris’ often worthy, sometimes sprawling, always engaging homage to the source.

Venue: City Garage, Bergamot Station, Santa Monica (through Dec. 15)

Cast: Nathan Dana Aldrich, Justin Davanzo, Kristina Drager, David E. Frank, Erol Dolen, Jonathan Bargiel, Megan Kim, Ben Bandel, Barret Crane, Kat Johnson, Jordan Kurtzman, Jeffrey Gardner, Steven Christian Amendola

Director: Frederique Michel

Writer: Steven Leigh Morris, inspired by “The Master and Margarita” by Mikhail Bulgakov

Producer, Production Design, Set & Lighting: Charles A. Duncombe

Costume Design: Josephine Poinsot

Sound Design: Paul Rubenstein