Mikhail Bulgakov’s The Master and Margarita is not an easy novel to adapt. In Russia, it’s one of those classics of literature that everyone has read. It’s very quoatable, very funny, and utterly untranslatable. Then there’s also its fantastic and bizarre style that’s so hard to put on stage. But in the midst of all this wit and style, there is a very serious, very important story, and Strawdog Theatre Company’s adaptation captures the essence of that story with an appropriate reverence for the original.
The Master and Margarita takes place in 1930s Moscow and begins with a visit by the Devil and his posse to the more-or-less atheistic Soviet Union. In the meantime, Margarita is searching for the Master, her lover and a great writer whose innovative work about Pontius Pilate and Jesus was not accepted by the “literary bureaucracy” of his time. Amid this havoc, a Ball of the Damned, and lots of magic tricks, the Devil comes to Margarita’s rescue (sort of).
Strawdog’s story mostly remains faithful to the original. A significant alteration is choosing to begin the play with the story of how the Master and Margarita met and fell in love; in the novel, this is only a flashback, and the adaptor’s decision to flesh out this part of the tale makes the rest of the play more real and more comprehensible. Yet the play begins with a scene between the two that rather quickly ends with them in bed, though they barely know each other, which seems a sort of blunt way of portraying the relationship between these two people. Another change that is not quite so apt is that the Master was changed from a novelist to a playwright, who is also cast as an actor in his own play. These decisions take the story away from its literary-ness. However, that may be for the best with a stage adaptation.
Yet, Dennis Grimes was a perfect choice for the Master. Passionate, excited and disappointed, idealistic and pessimistic at various turns of the story, he feels like the Master. Margarita (Justine C. Turner) perfectly fits how I imagined her character to be—she is a faithful and kind woman who loves a great man. The two actors have excellent chemistry onstage, which adds to the story and helps carry it along.
The way in which the director created the transitions between the present and the past, Moscow and the Master’s novel, was also very clever. The Master would dream, or think, or see as he was writing, and his characters would appear before him and the audience. Some staging adaptations were very fitting. For example, the devotees of the literary bureaucracy were held by other actors as puppets when they spoke to symbolize manipulation and brainwashing. The music during the transitions and the Ball of the Damned captures the bizarre and fantastic mood of the novel. However, not all the fantastic and funny bits made it to the stage, perhaps because they simply couldn’t be translated on stage. The Master and Margarita is bizarre in a matter-of-fact way that’s very, very hard to adapt. For example, in the first scene of the novel, the Devil informs Berlioz, the atheistic head of a writer’s union, that his head will be cut off by a woman that very night because Anushka has purchased the sunflower oil. He storms off, only to slip on some sunflower oil, fall onto the tram tracks, and have his head cut off by a tram driven by a woman. All of this occurs in a matter-of-fact way that the narrator doesn’t really explain.
The play doesn’t start with this scene, instead opting to put on stage the relationship between the Master and Margarita, so that when this scene does occur, it doesn’t have quite the same striking affect. The novel also involves a gigantic talking cat, who is perhaps one of the more quoted characters of the story; he’s both hilarious and fantastic, and there’s just no way that a person dressed as a cat can capture that. Nevertheless, the cast did some impressive magic and the Ball of the Damned, even if it’s not quite as bizarre as one would’ve liked, was still quite striking.
In the end, this is a story about writing, about literature, about history, truth, and creation. Bulgakov famously destroyed his first draft of the novel, but as the devil says in the story, “manuscripts don’t burn.” This one certainly didn’t, and this story is here to stay.