Master and Margarita At The UMKC

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.

  • Melinda

    I love this book. Love love love this book. Thank you for sharing.

  • Uncultured Person

    Hey, guess what? I saw this too. A week ago. I confess, not knowing the book, I had quite the opposite reaction. But I did suspect that I was just not getting it. It seemed at times to verge on Brechtian theater of the absurd but IMHO never really got there. I did think the costumes excellent, though, especially the ones on the mob. I’m sure I just need to read the book. (Oh and I am definitely going to LB, thank S for thinking to let me know).

  • Can’t watch the videos right now, as I don’t dare enable the sound (gotta bring my earphones back to the office). But that said, it IS an excellent book! While I have probably neither reread it as often as you, nor caught all the references, I have always found it a challenging and rewarding book to read.

    • I am really surprised how many people read this book here.

      • Uncultured Person

        Ditto. I was a lit major and don’t remember people talking about this book, not even my Russian/comp lit friends. If I’d known I was going to be the lone non-reader, I might not have been so quick to admit to it!

        Guess I’ve really earned my moniker with this one.

  • I read it in high school because I was/am a sci-fi/horror/fantasy nerd. This was one of the initial books I got with my Sci-fi book club membership. I got it not because I had heard great things, but because the little teaser they wrote in the catalog sounded great.

    While I totally love the book, I have few friends I that I can recommend it to. I think it is too challenging for a lot of folks who read for pure entertainment. I only have one other book that I would love to recommend but don’t. That one isn’t because the subject matter is difficult for the MTV generation to follow, but because some of it is pretty explicit (even freaky).

  • Uncultured Person

    Hey Nuke, that’s interesting that it was considered Sci-Fi. I guess it could qualify as fantasy, although then so would Kafka or Marques.

    As a Sci-Fi person, are you a big Heinlein fan? I’m fascinated that he’s not a bigger personage here in KC (or Joan Crawford or Jean Harlow either, although they’re another story). If it were up to me, when one landed at MCI or drove into the metro area, huge signs everywhere would declare this to be HEINLEIN COUNTRY.