- The Washington Times - Thursday, May 20, 2004

If anyone can pull off a stage adaptation of Mikhail Bulgakov’s dizzyingly experimental novel, “The Master and Margarita,” it would be Synetic Theater. The troupe, founded by Soviet Republic of Georgia emigres Paata and Irina Tsikurishvili, is known for its nontraditional, movement-based productions — a natural fit for the novel’s black magic and black humor.

The book is a strange one, secretly written by Mr. Bulgakov in the 1930s during the Stalin regime and not published until 1967. The author caged his anti-Stalinist message in a refracted allegory of good and evil where the Devil (with a talking cat and a vaudevillian “translator” as his sidekicks) is the main character, and Jesus and Pontius Pilate make cameo appearances.

In “Master,” the Devil comes to Moscow as a German magician named Woland. He takes on the city’s literary establishment, who natter on about how God and Jesus don’t exist. Woland begs to differ, and to prove his point he predicts the death by decapitation of atheist editor Berlioz (Nathan Weinberger). The death scene is evocatively done in dreamy slow-motion, a nightmare that features a headless torso wandering through the accident scene while Berlioz’s severed head watches serenely from the sidelines.

Woland’s trick so traumatizes poet Ivan Bezdomny (Mike Spara) that he lands in a mental hospital. His neighbor at the asylum is the Master (Paata Tsikurishvili), author of an unpublished novel about Pontius Pilate, whose soul has been pierced by the rejection of his life’s work and by political persecution. He is also the real reason why Woland is in Moscow.

Pilate’s story is key in both the play and the novel, the thread that winds through this surreal tale of terror, the necessity of the devil, and the redemptive power of love. The Master’s novel is read by the (Irina Tsikurishvili), and Pilate also figures prominently in a story told by Woland and one of Ivan’s poems.

The director, Mr. Tsikurishvili, expertly weaves the narrative between 1930s Moscow, first-century Jerusalem and the bizarre worlds conjured by Woland and his minions. The production features brilliant and dynamic set pieces that combine Synetic’s patented precise, sinuous movement with a soundscape of contemporary orchestral music mixed with scary sound effects.

Perhaps the most potent sequence is Woland’s Grand Ball, which Margarita agrees to host in order to be reunited with the Master. The ball begins, benignly enough, with a comic assemblage of chess pieces recalling “Alice in Wonderland.” They quickly give way to the other guests, who rise from their coffins and join Margarita in a frenzied dance of death. They dance as if they have no bones.

Practically every scene with Margarita and the Master is a treasure, so sure are the Tsikurishvilis of their craft, so exquisitely chosen and calibrated are their movements. When they finally come together, you are greatly moved, especially when Woland grants them the peace eluding them for so long. You have to give the devil his due, as he perhaps knows better than anyone that death — like love — conquers all.

You only wish the rest of the troupe was up to the Tsikurishvilis’ standards. The acting ranges from the inspired — Nicholas Allen as the forceful demon Azazello; Iraki Kavsadze as an unruffled, cultured Pilate; and Geoff Nelson as Yeshua — to the hammy histrionics of Catherine Gasta in a variety of roles and Armand Sindoni as Woland.

Act One takes a while to become coherent, but “Master and Margarita” comes into focus in the second half, where the strange majesty of Mr. Bulgakov’s novel and its epic battle between cynicism and spirituality blazes into life.

***

WHAT: “The Master and Margarita” by Mikhail Bulgakov, stage adaptation by Roland Reed

WHERE: Synetic Theatre at Rosslyn Spectrum, 1611 Kent St., Rosslyn

WHEN: 8 p.m. Thursdays through Saturdays, 2 p.m. Sundays. Through June 20

TICKETS: $25 to $32

PHONE: 703/824-6200

MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS

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