The Master and Margarita – Devil May Care
I’m going to give you a little context, here, for Annex’s The Master and Margarita: remember raves? [We’re not exactly “millennials” here at your Bad Oracle, children – TBO] Warehouse poppin’, glow sticks glowin’, everyone well and truly into the party? Imagine that you’re at one, and you, my friend, are the designated driver hanging in the corner. So when, like, witches fly by on broom sticks, a guy with no pants on stumbles through your vision carrying a mermaid, or a talking tomcat tears a person’s head off, you? You just clutch your spiked drink closer, smile, and nod along. For those bibliophiles familiar with Mikhail Bulgakov’s (cult classic) novel, rejoice, and welcome to the soiree! For those sipping your Diet Cokes, tardy to the party, buckle in, it’s going to be a hell of a ride.
Okay, so first of all, this is gorgeous piece of performance art. From the moment I stepped into Annex’s little corner of the word, I was transported. Kudos to the design team for making Master a truly immersive experience. I mean seriously, hats off to director Jake Budenz for leading this charge, because it is fucking BEAUTIFUL. Sure, you’ve got to get over your giddy, giggly BUT THEY’RE NAKED feelings as Afranius (Sarah Jacqueline) steps onto the stage nude from the start. My companion and I kept count, and I officially saw more of the cast unclothed than clothed. But it was done so well! And it made such a point! And the point, my friends, is that Satan has, indeed, come to Moscow. From the rubber snakes to the vodka shots in Dixie cups (that I was assured were legit Russian), it’s an engaging event.
The play begins in a park, and with the exception the al fresco Sarah Jacqueline, selling beer and apricot juice, it is a picturesque scene [I myself might argue that it still sounds pretty damned picturesque.-TBO]. Two jovial characters, Bezdomny and Berlioz, played by Caitlin Weaver and Jonathon Jacobs respectively, are hotly debating the existence of Jesus. They are disinclined to believe he existed. A stranger in town (Martin Kasey) interrupts to ask some questions. The stranger predicts that Berlioz will be decapitated and, succinctly, it happens. Although Berlioz loses his head literally, Bezdomny loses her figuratively. She is placed in an asylum, where she will pop in and out and narrate vignettes for the rest of the play.
This is the beginning of the novel, too, and our first indication that Budenz (who also adapted) has a more-than-faithful, in fact, almost slavish, devotion to the original text. Like Bulgakov himself, Budenz drops us into a macabre world where anything can happen. And if you don’t entirely “get it”? Don’t dismay. There are hundreds of threads online where bigger nerds than me are, even as we speak, debating the meaning of this novel. No one really gets it. That’s the secret to everything. You’re in good company.
The story from there focuses around three plot threads that tie together in the end: (1) There is a book, written by the Master (Lucia A. Treasure) about Pontius Pilate, also played by Treasure. The Master thinks it is no good, and in a true artist’s crisis of relevance, throws it to the flames. His lover, Margarita, depicted by the lovely Autumn Breaud, retrieves it and tries to salvage what is left of the masterpiece. (2) Satan, in the form of a black magic act named Woland (Martin Kasey) visits Moscow for general sightseeing and mayhem. While there, he throws a damned good party, with some entertaining characters. (3) Pontius Pilate condemns Yeshua (Autumn Breaud) and sentences him to die, while also dealing with Judas and Levi Matvei (Terrance Flemming).
As KaseyWolandSatan does his fucking awesome black magic act with the pleasing assistance of his walking, talking, slightly lispy, slightly neurotic cat, Behemoth (Theresa Columbus) we tumble further and further down the rabbit hole. The title characters are not present (also true to the novel) until well into the play. Lucia A. Treasure and Autumn Breaud, M&M, are completely convincing in their tragically ill-fated love affair. In the end, Margarita is the demise, succumbing to Satan’s…well…satanic…bidding. The doubling of Breaud for Margarita and Yeshua is inspired. She is the epitome of ultimate good and the evil witch. It’s a choice that should lead to a solid round table discussion of what redeems people and what condemns them. The supporting cast is more than solid, if you can even call them supporting! The playbill only shows two roles for each character but there are so many more, some not even named. Samy El-Noury, Terrance Flemming, Jonathon Jacobs, Lucia A. Treasure and Emily Clausen all work behind moving curtains, tirelessly and effortlessly switching to their next accent and adornment. It’s a strong, well-rounded cast that Budnez appears to conduct with ease. Pleasure to watch, all around.
Let’s return to the design of this for a second, because, like I said before, it’s sheer brilliance. The music is original by Dan Hanrahan and David Crandall (with additional sound design by David Crandall), Dan Hanrahan (Guitar and Vocals), and Baggypantsrich (Banjo). It was perfect, and I sincerely thought they borrowed tracks from a warped Russian soundtrack. It has notes of carnival music, teases out dark themes for the existential threads, and has an overall dank, Eastern European feel. And the lighting! Fire reflected on the curtains by lighting designer Rick Gerriets, are absolutely fabulous – it feels like the theater is aflame. Shout outs as well to props designer Meg Peterson for her fire balls that add to the effect. Projections by David Crandall were also spot on, always varied and presented in an appropriately warped frame. The set (Evan Moritz, Zac Lawhon, and Doug Johnson) is a simple construction heightened by mesmerizing, water-color treated curtains. There are a dozen of them, functioning to ground the action in time and place. Costumes by Nicolette La Faye are opulent. A few seem a little odd and out of place, like the country-western duds on Weaver in the opening, but most artfully pinpoint the character: Margarita in greens and pastels, Azazello in a blouson-sleeved shrug of burnout velvet, and Woland in leather skirts, gloves, striped silky shirts, wielding a menacing walking stick.
The play though, also (unfortunately) true to the novel, is lengthy. The running time is a painful 2 hours and 57 minutes [WHAT?-TBO]. I suspect those unfamiliar with the text might call for some strategic editing, but the rest of us revel in it, even if we might occasionally glaze over at this level of attention to detail. The seats are not the most comfy and I remarked at one point that I should have brought a hemorrhoid doughnut. There is a ten-minute intermission, but unfortunately I do not know that area well enough to pull off the black magic of other audience members, like the woman sucking a dozen chicken wings out of her purse, or those with brown paper bags. Damn, I should have followed them instead of slugging free vodka. Next time, bitches.
BOTTOM LINE: The Master and Margarita is a gorgeous, glamorous piece of small theater art, designed at its absolute best. It’s eclectic, electric, and engaging. And, yeah, it’s long. Bring friends, snacks, a padded seat cushion and talk about it. Talk about it! Is Margarita divine or wicked? Can you do the wrong thing for the right reasons and be redeemable? What would good look like if evil didn’t exist? Hit me up after, we’ll chat over beverages. I am dying to discuss!
Running at Psychic Readings until June 12th.
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