After reading an article in the Pitch imploring me to see the Master and Margarita at the UMKC I knew I had to go. The Master and Margarita is one of only a few books that I read more than once and discovered something new every time. It is also one of a few Russian masterpieces that no matter how well translated could not be fully understood by a foreigner (that would be you); it’s somewhat similar to me trying to decipher Cris Packham’s pop-cultural references (not that I don’t try). The book was written during the times of the strictest censorship when even a hint of anti-Soviet criticism could literally threaten the writer’s life and that’s why Mikhail Bulgakov had to insinuate just as much as he wrote down. The average Soviet reader could easily read “between the lines” and see the satire in the most innocent dialogues and descriptions. Some of the references were to the specific characters in the author’s life and are not easily recognizable but the barbs thrown at the Soviet bureaucrats, censors, informers, dimwits, careerists, sellouts and the regime itself were obvious to the people who still encountered them in their everyday life for another 50 years after the book was written.
Not too many people risked producing it on the stage or on the screen, it could not be easily condensed and the characters were so well-known and beloved that any such attempt would be criticized by the fans. That’s why I was pretty skeptical going to the UMKC performance. I didn’t expect the cast to have an understanding of the book required to convey it onto the stage and it couldn’t possibly be shortened to fit into the regular length of the theater performance. What I saw was pretty amazing and truly one of the best theatrical performances I’ve seen in my life – honest, funny, enthusiastic, smart, inventive and, although not very close to the book, with plenty of Blugakov’s spirit in it. Once you get past the fact that some male roles are played by girls (i.e. Koroviev and Azazello), the character of the devil – Woland is wearing hooves, and the Cat Behemoth is a black guy with the red Mohawk dressed in some kind of leather corset and a shaggy trench coat, everything else falls in place. The actors were outstanding but Patrick DuLaney who played Woland was on par with the Russian actors who played this role in the movie versions of the Master and Margarita. He was able to convey Woland’s millenniums-old age, his exhaustion with life, his disgust with people which could only be defeated by the true love and selfless sacrifice. Julane Havens as Margarita was also very impressive, as a sensitive, sensual, defenseless but determined woman ready to sacrifice everything just to be with Master. The actress who played Hella gets a special mention, nice job keeping every male eye locked on the stage!
I also would like to specifically praise the costume and stage design. The Soviet people are all dressed in the same gray uniforms lovingly adorned by red stars; even their underwear is gray (as was revealed later and you missed it). I also liked the use of projection screens.
During the show I (illegally) made a few videos, sorry, serious-looking-bearded-usher-guy, I didn’t spend years in the KGB school in the USSR to be told what to do by the Man.
(By the way, in the bottom part of these videos you’ll see a jackass who didn’t feel it was necessary to take his stupid hat off in the theater; maybe the usher should have concerned himself with this view-obstructing clown instead of making sure I can’t record a low-quality video.)
After the show I overheard one lady ask her friend if she enjoyed the show, “it was too weird” was the reply. It’s hard to convey the whole complexity of the book on the stage to an unprepared viewer, but to people who understood it was an amazing effort worthy of a professional venue.
P.S. Alan Scherstuhl is my new Facebook friend on the condition that I will never have to pronounce his last name.