The devil who comes to Soviet-era Moscow in Mikhail Bulgakov’s The Master and Margarita is the anti-Tinker Bell: You can refuse to believe in him all you want, but it’s only going to piss him off. The city’s cultural establishment learns that lesson the hard way in the novel, now receiving a chaotic stage version from the Russian Arts Theater and Studio. Peeved to discover that the supernatural has been banished from Russia, the Prince of Darkness, traveling as a magician named Woland (Roman Freud), raises hell, merrily lopping off heads, stripping theatergoers to their underpants, and taking over a coveted apartment — which might have been his worst offense of all to Muscovites forced at the time to share cramped flats with several other families.
The book’s satire of Stalinist ideology meant that Bulgakov had to write it in secret; it wasn’t published in full until the mid-Sixties, two and a half decades after his death. The novel has since been recognized as one of the twentieth century’s literary standouts, not only for the social comedy and otherworldly whimsy, but also for Bulgakov’s skillful intertwining of philosophical ruminations and humanist compassion. Those latter qualities are supplied by the plot’s other major strands: a naturalistic depiction of Pontius Pilate (Brandon DeSpain) during the crucifixion of Christ and a touching love story involving the title characters, a troubled novelist (Tom Schubert) confined to an insane asylum and his daring paramour (Di Zhu), who makes a Faustian pact with Woland and is unexpectedly rewarded rather than punished.
As you can see, there’s a lot going on. But because director Aleksey Burago, working from Jean-Claude van Itallie’s 1993 adaptation of the novel, lacks Bulgakov’s sure hand when it comes to genre-juggling, the story feels disjointed and baffling rather than richly varied. In Burago’s crowded, wild rumpus of a staging, the action is overpowered by the devil’s retinue of tiresome tricksters — a clown in checked trousers (Ariel Polanco), an eyepatch-sporting thug (Michael Dona), a maid in lacy lingerie (Luisa Menzen), and a talking black cat (Charles Anderson, costumed in latex bondage gear). These four are nearly always onstage, shrieking, writhing, meowing, performing clunkily choreographed movement, and otherwise making the dialogue impossible to follow. Other distractions include occasional musical interludes, audio effects from an onstage soundboard operator (Reanna Armellino, also clad in underwear), and a rickety set (designed by Leon Joosen) featuring columns, ladders, strings of lights, and an outsize papier-mâché angel.
Mystery and misrule are strong elements in the book as well, but they’re offset by a sense of authorial purpose. Burago’s production only comes into focus during scenes featuring Zhu’s Margarita, who proves capable of witchy abandon but is grounded in the character’s ardor and determination. The show’s most effective moments, tellingly, are the least frenzied, when Margarita falls for the Master by reading his work and resolves to go to the devil in order to save it. Thanks to Zhu’s passionate performance, we get fleeting glimpses of one of the most stirring themes in Bulgakov’s novel (and in his life): that in times of tyrants, the preservation of art requires courage, sacrifice, and human kindness.
The Master and Margarita, Or, The Devil Comes to Moscow
The West End Theatre
263 West 86th Street
Through September 9