Review: ‘The Master and Margarita’ at Constellation Theatre

The devil figure masquerading as Woland, the professor of black magic, in Mikhail Bulgakov’s The Master and Margarita loathes skeptics, so much so that he travels around the world with the intention of wreaking havoc on nonbelievers and righteous intellectuals alike. The target of this occasion? Soviet-era Moscow and its authoritarian cultural establishment. Setting buildings aflame, gaily chopping off heads, hypnotizing unscrupulous theatergoers down to their underwear, Woland raises hell in Edward Kemp’s theatrical adaptation of the novel, brought to life in visual splendor and sensuous allure by the folks at Constellation Theatre Company.

Anna Lynch, Scott Ward Abernethy, Louis E. Davis, Dallas Tolentino in The Master and Margarita. Photo courtesy of Constellation Theatre Company.
Anna Lynch, Scott Ward Abernethy, Louis E. Davis, Dallas Tolentino in The Master and Margarita. Photo by DJ Corey Photography.

Although the book was published posthumously in two parts between 1966 and 1967, Bulgakov is said to have started writing Master as early as 1928, and would continue to work in secrecy for the remainder of his life. Banned by Soviet authorities from writing, Bulgakov was kept in limbo under the watchful gaze of Stalin – denied permission to leave the country and condemned to his job as an assistant director at the Moscow Art theatre. The “master” of the The Master and Margarita, is undoubtedly based on the author’s personal experiences, while the doting Margarita is more than likely based off Bulgakov’s wife, Elena.

The play unfolds in four acts: first we open to rehearsals of the master’s boldly revisionist play about Pontius Pilate (Jesse Terrill) and Jesus Christ, and the events leading to its interruption and censorship.

Despite a moderately sized cast, the ensemble feels sprawling and diverse, like a mini population siphoned through Bulgakov’s imaginary Moscow, then decked out in boudoir-chic and steampunk fashioning thanks to Erik Teague’s eye-popping costume design. A crew of preeminent literary Muscovites led by Emily Witworth’s delightfully snooty Berlioz work to bring about the master’s demise while flashing their furs and handkerchiefs like a ratpack of brainwashed psuedo-intellectuals with more style than substance.

Alexander Strain plays the master with passion and pomp, yet still convincingly on the knife’s edge of disbelief of his own abilities; when things go south and he lands in a state-sanctioned insane asylum for “schizophrenia” (i.e. for being an ideological threat), the play turns to his muse cum lover Margarita (Amanda Forstrom) to save the day. And oh does she – by the most spectacular and bewitching means possible.

The entry of Scott Ward Abernethy’s Woland marks the show’s transition into the realm of fantasy and absurdism. The devil does away with the Muscovite socialites one by one with the help of his crew of misfits – the red-suited goblin, Fagott (Dallas Tolentino), the hitwoman vampire, Azazello (McLean Fletcher), and an enormous cat named Behemoth (Louis E. Davis). The posse, by the way, is absolutely fabulous on the night of a fiendish magic show, the three so physically different from one another and yet cohesive in their rhythmic ritualistic performance. Abernethy is deployed so precisely as the cool, menacing Woland, the production at times felt that it belonged to him.

After Margarita agrees to the fiends’ demands in exchange for the master’s release, a pot of magic cream turns the loyal lover into a beautiful, golden-haired witch. Strapped into a bitsy nude-colored bra and garter, Forstrom is spellbinding as Margarita 2.0, whose wide-eyed fearlessness and sinewy physicality is spotlight-stealing, even in a room full of wild ghouls and spooks.

Amanda Forstrom and the cast of The Master and Margarita. Photo courtesy of Constellation Theatre Company.
Amanda Forstrom and the cast of The Master and Margarita. Photo by DJ Corey Photography.

Bulgakov’s novel is known for its difficulty, as it fuses together so many disparate elements into a rollicking satire of enormous scope. A commentary on creative responsibility under the constraints of authoritarianism, the redemptive power of love, the whims and waverings of consciousness, and of course the vanities of bourgeois society – there’s a lot to unpack. The play certainly touches on these elements but is held back from exploring them in any substantial way. As a consequence of editing down the novel into a rather brisk two and a half hours on stage, the themes felt confused and watered down. Ultimately this production of The Master and Margarita is more concerned with conveying a tale of adventure and magical realism than it is in exploring the political and emotional dimensions of the source material.

But I say this mostly as a warning for those that might approach this adaptation as purely fans of the novel. Allison Arkell Stockman’s production might not bring out the best from the multiple storylines and meanings of the original (which I imagine is not an easy task for any theatrical creative team), but it does excel in its gorgeous, and intelligent recreation of various events and ambiances.

A.J. Guban’s lighting design works miracles in shifting space and time, while also serving as a crucial element of characterization (drenched crimson lighting for the devil and his retinue, for example). At times, however, Guban’s work seems to go beyond function and attain a creative autonomy of its own, particularly in the Master and Margarita’s lovemaking scene, its soft red and blue color palette like something out of a Wong Kar-wai film.

There’s a scene in the play in which Margarita questions the feasibility of holding a ball within the cramped confines of Berlioz’s apartment. It’s a matter of entering the fifth dimension, responds one of the ghouls, gesturing towards the unreal expansion of the space around them. Whipped from a meeting between Pontius Pilate and Jesus in one scene, multiple banishments and murders, an extended dance sequence, a magic show, a trip to the insane asylum, a flight through the open night sky, and then spiritual purgatory– this rendering of The Master and Margarita felt similarly miraculous. Constellation proves yet again that they’re a small theatre company to be reckoned with, in another epic and visually stunning production– almost magically contained within The Source’s intimate staging area.

Running Time: Two hours and 40 minutes, including a 15-minute intermission.

The Master and Margarita plays through March 3, 2019, at Constellation Theatre Company’s residence at Source – 1835 14th Street NW, Washington DC. For tickets, call the box office at (202) 204-7741 or go online.