One night in 1935, Mikhail Bulgakov went to a wild party at Spaso House, the U.S. ambassador’s residence in Moscow. It was a quasi-hallucinatory, all-night affair with a small indoor birch forest, hundreds of free-flying finches, a dozen white roosters, some mountain goats, and a juvenile bear borrowed from the Moscow Zoo that Karl Radek, co-author of the Soviet constitution, got drunk on Champagne. According to an account from the U.S. State Department, the “unhousebroken baby bear ruined a Soviet general’s uniform.” The following year, Radek was arrested for treason. He died shortly afterward in a Soviet labor camp — not because of the bear.
Critics suspect that evening in 1935 inspired the phantasmagoric scene of Satan’s full-moon ball in Bulgakov’s “The Master and Margarita” — a secretly written, Stalin-era gallows comedy about the devil dropping by Moscow to check on the human condition. “The Master and Margarita” is one of those novels that has transcended the status of mere book and become a cultural prism. Bulgakov packed the all-too-real headiness, paranoia and violence of his Soviet world into one supernatural satire. And no matter which way its admirers have turned it in the past few decades, they tend to find something enchanting. Artists, historians, and scientists have all pledged their attention to it: Patti Smith (“Banga”), the Rolling Stones (“Sympathy for the Devil”), even an Israeli inventor who ran chemical analyses of Bulgakov’s “Master” notes, looking for biomarkers of renal disease in traces of the writer’s sweat and saliva. (The inventor found them, along with lots of morphine.) A friend who lived in Prague during the late 1990s reports that among young expats, the novel was a de rigueur literary accessory.
Around the same time, a Seattle company called theater simple (all lowercase) adapted the vivid, cinematically written story for five actors and a shoestring budget. They toured it to fringe festivals in the U.S., Canada and Australia where it won awards and got enthusiastic reviews.
Now, 18 years and three presidents later, theater simple has brought it back, this time to the basement stage of Theatre Off Jackson, along with live musicians, where it holds up — mostly.
Theater simple’s five actors rollick around the appropriately simple set (rolling screens, a ghost light, a large trunk), hurling us through the novel, which pings between spots in Moscow (an insane asylum, a park, various apartments) and Yershalaim (Jerusalem), where Pontius Pilate agonizes over a vagrant prophet named Yeshua (Jesus) who’s been sentenced to death.
The Pilate/Yeshua story, planted in a Moscow writer’s head by Professor Woland (Bulgakov’s incarnation of Satan), is closely twinned to the fates of the Stalin-era Muscovites — but best not try to parse the plot too carefully. “Master and Margarita” covers a lot of ground at a breathless pace, relying on the five actors and two musicians (Scott Adams on accordion, Julie Baldridge on violin, with occasional help from actor/clarinet player Monique Kleinhans), plus a few simple but clever lighting cues from designer Jason Meininger, to do the heavy lifting.
The overall effect is like a traveling vaudeville show, with broad performances and self-aware zaniness. The actors certainly appear to be enjoying themselves and most of the performances hit their high-water marks when the action gets wild. For example: The poet Ivan (Nathan Brockett), convinced he’s going mad after an encounter with Professor Woland (Kleinhans), gets naked, jumps into a river, runs into a Soviet writers’-society meeting and is eventually carted off to an asylum. Stark naked and raving onstage to a roomful of strangers isn’t everyone’s idea of fun, but Brockett seems to be having the time of his life.
“The Master and Margarita” lags a little in its slower bits, where the production can’t always find the intensity in quietude it so gleefully locates in noise. Even here, there are exceptions: Llysa Holland’s Pilate is a genuinely distressed man (he’s got a headache, he hates his job, he doesn’t want to crucify Yeshua) and actor Teague M. Parker artfully runs the scales from loud to soft as a cocksure but doomed literary editor in one scene, then the earnest, stooped Yeshua in the next. Kleinhans also does well with Professor Woland, whose sinister, smiling calm is the taproot of everyone’s troubles, from Moscow to Israel.
The real fun is watching how theater simple executes what production manager Andrew Litzky calls their “shoestring epics.” The ghost light can serve as the moon or a flashlight; naked Ivan jumps into a “river” created by flickering blue lights and a couple of actors holding him in midair; we know a devil is near when we hear the white-noise wheeze of an open accordion; and a Roman guard, looming in silhouette behind a screen, violently kicks the in-front-of-us Yeshua onstage — a kick that looks more savagely painful than your standard stage-combat move, perhaps because the illusion of a shadow kicking a man demands our imaginations to do some of the work.
Whatever the strengths and weaknesses of this “Master and Margarita,” Bulgakov’s beguiling, confounding story shines through it. The play’s first line, spoken by Professor Woland in the near-darkness, is a light rewrite of Bulgakov’s epigraph to the novel, taken from Goethe: “I am that part of the power that forever wills evil and forever works good.”
It’s a properly spooky moment for a little basement stage under a ghost-light moon.
“The Master and Margarita” by Mikhail Bulgakov, adapted for the stage by theater simple. Through April 27; theater simple at Theatre Off Jackson, 409 Seventh Ave. S., Seattle; $10-$35; 800-838-3006, theatersimple.org