The Synetic Theater troupe erupted onto the Lansburgh Theatre stage last Thursday with its own wildly, hyperkinetic vision of Mikhail Bulgakov’s surrealistic novel, The Master and Margarita. Directed by Synetic’s founder, Paata Tsikurishvili and choreographed by his wife, and ensemble co-founder, Irina Tsikurishvili — both of whom also star in the title roles — this production is based on a new play by Roland Reed. And it’s a picture-perfect vehicle for this swashbuckling ensemble of iconoclasts.
Relying on Reed’s dramatic version of the novel of the same name by Mikhail Bulgakov, director Paata Tsikurishvili focuses on key episodes like an opera librettist who trims an original work down to its essence. This liberates the visceral, visual storytelling that’s become a hallmark of this unusual theater company.
Deploying acres of fabric, clever props, colorful costuming, brilliant lighting design, and a punchy soundtrack composed by Konstantine Lortkipanidze (with bits from other composers tossed in), Synetic, under Paata Tsikurishvili’s clear-headed, imaginative direction invents a production that couples the athletic grace of the Cirque du Soleil with the contortions of Pilobolus, topping them off with the comic magic of the Flying Karamazov Brothers.
All are knit into a seamless whole via the elastic and imaginative choreography of Irina Tsikurishvili, deftly performed by a youthful cast with the physical conditioning of Olympic athletes. Every move is perfect, graceful and sensuous almost to a fault. This is acting mostly without words, 21st century ballet without jazz or Tchaikovsky—a unique style that sets this ensemble apart.
Not well known to American readers and audiences, Bulgakov’s almost hallucinatory novel was written in the Soviet Union during the 1930s. Dangerously critical of Stalin’s repressive regime, it unfolds in a picaresque, surrealistic style meant to throw off Soviet-era censors from its underlying meaning. Not surprisingly, it wasn’t officially published until 1966-67—long after the novelist’s death in 1940.
The Master and Margarita may be the earliest example of “magical realism,” a style that blends reality and fantasy into a seamless whole, sometimes disconnecting the narrative from chronology as well. Uniting literature, philosophy, politics, theater, and poetry into a bizarre narrative fabric, Bulgakov’s novel echoes yet transcends the Faustian legend upon which it is based.
The novel can be read on many levels. It’s a savage yet often hilarious critique of Stalin-era repression in the arts; a satire on the pretentions of poets and theater producers as well as thuggish political censors; a lampoon on esoteric philosophers and organized religion; and, oddly, a deeply romantic love story.
Both the novel and this theatrical realization revolve around “Master” (Paata Tsikurishvili) a repressed novelist who finds himself in a gulag-like asylum, along with the failed poet Bezdomny (Ryan Sellers). Master has burned his novel-in-progress—the tragic tale of poor, misunderstood Pontius Pilate who’s plagued by memories of Yeshua (Jesus), whom he regards as an eccentric Jewish magician.
But Master’s reminiscences cause Bezdomny to flash back to a theological quarrel he once had with the atheist Berlioz (Chris Dinolfo). They were interrupted by a “Professor” Voland (Armand Sindoni), who surprises them with his own story of Yeshua and Pilate and concludes with the startling revelation that Berlioz will shortly be decapitated by a trolley so Voland can move into his apartment. The prophecy proves true, and Voland—actually Satan in disguise—uses Berlioz’ head as a handy prop for the rest of the play.
Aided by his assistants Koroviev (Scott Brown), the devil-cat Behemoth (Philip Fletcher), the equally cat-like Azazello, and the vampire-like Hella (Sarah Taurchini), Voland hosts a Satanic Ball in Berlioz’ apartment, inviting Master’s long-lost mistress and muse, Margarita (Irina Tsikurishvili) to serve as his queen, transforming her into a witch in the process. Her pyrrhic reward is to be reunited—in the afterlife—with the Master, which a surprisingly compassionate Voland regards as a better place than Moscow.
While some of Bulgakov’s subtexts and characters are removed in this theatrical version, what remains gains in emotional impact. Bulgakov’s criticism of Stalin is amped up in scenes where the Master is brutally tortured by KGB-style thugs. The nastiness is leavened with slapstick comedy and magic. Even the beheading of poor Berlioz is transformed into an amusing running joke. And the fantastic becomes high art when filtered through the quirky imagination of Paata Tsikurishvili.
That said, this production never loses sight of the drama’s tangled central motifs. Margarita’s pact with the Devil becomes a romantic imperative, uniting her love for the Master into her service as his Muse. It’s ultimately a very spiritual, uplifting theatrical event, leavened with bits of antic humor and spectacular athleticism.
Synetic’s Master and Margarita is not entirely wordless, as are some of their productions. Indeed, that’s probably impossible here, as the novel/play’s fluid plot would be almost impossible to decipher without some narrative. Though dialogue is kept to the minimum, the players prove to be as gifted as actors as they are in dance and mime.
The Tsikurishvilis portray the Master and Margarita movingly as both real and spiritual lovers, the perfect union of temporal love and artistic achievement. In glances as well as words, they channel the tragic but oddly puckish vision of Bulgakov. Their roles are essential and central, yet they never crowd out the efforts of their supporting cast.
As Voland, Armand Sindoni is both antic and authoritative, perhaps taking as his model the oily yet gentlemanly Mephistopheles in Gounod’s operatic Faust, a work that Bulgakov was known to admire. Sindoni’s Voland is a worldly, surprisingly dapper Satan, fulfilling Bulgakov’s ironic vision of a “devil” who’s actually the opposite of what Christians imagine him to be.
Scott Brown’s menacing Koroviev, Sarah Taurchini’s spooky Hella, Philip Fletcher’s brawny yet antic Behemoth, and Alex Mills’ Cats-like imagining of Azazello ably round out Voland’s entourage. Mills in particular is impressive for conveying his character’s amorality as well as for his uncanny ability to contort his character almost as readily as an octopus can slither underneath a doorway.
Smaller roles were notable as well, particularly Chris Dinolfo’s brief turn as the pre-beheaded Berlioz and Richie Pepio’s Hamlet-like interpretation of Bulgakov’s “tragic hero” Pontius Pilate.
More than many productions, however, this one is critically dependent on its invisible backstage support. We’ve already mentioned Konstantine Lortkipanidze’s score, critical to the energy of this production. Kudos as well to Colin K. Bills for his flashy yet paradoxically unobtrusive lighting design, which ripples, flickers, and occasionally blasts in from the periphery, almost like an additional character in the play.
Fierce in its artistic ambitions, Synetic is an intellectual, multimedia theater company, deploying theater, literature, poetry, philosophy, history, music, dance, and mime into a kinetic art form that redefines the term “performance.” The company’s new production of Master and Margarita is a feast for the eyes and the ears–but above all, the mind. That’s a lot of territory to cover. But nobody does it better.
[Note: Some readers may remember Synetic’s original production in 2005, for which Irina Tsikurishvili won her fourth Helen Hayes Award for choreography.]
The Master and Margarita
Based on the novel by Mikhail Bulgakov
Adapted by Paata Tsikurishvili from a play by Roland Reed
Directed by Paata Tsikurishvili
Choreographed by Irina Tsikurishvili
Produced by Synetic Theater
Reviewed by Terry Ponick
THE MASTER AND MARGARITA