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Chicago by John Olson

The Master and Margarita
Strawdog Theatre
Guest Reviewer Richard Green

Also see John's reviews of The People's Four Seasons and Working

The Master and Margarita
Guests of "the ball of the damned"
(Justine Turner, center)

A few weeks ago, one of my favorite people tried to get me to summarize one of these little reviews by asking me, quite simply, whether I had actually liked the play in question, or not. Yes or no, up or down. And I had to admit that even I was stumped on that one, in that particular case. I don't know why I hadn't thought about it, at the time. Am I supposed to select "like" or "not like" for every play? Can't I just admire each one for its provocative ideas, its ingenious acting and directing, or unexpected innovations, even if it has an aftertaste that smacks of lutefisk?

So let's get right down to it: I loved The Master and Margarita, and highly recommend it. But of course you can't just put "five stars" on a show and call it a day, especially since Edward Kemp's semi-mystical, police-state/Underworld fantasy is actually like great, haunting music for the soul. And, as a stage adaptation of Mikhail Bulgakov's most famous novel, it's also an outstanding blend of wit and unbearable human quandaries.

But it's important to be clear, especially when you're discussing a two-and-a-half hour long play based on a little known story of artistic desperation in Josef Stalin's Moscow. I wish you could have heard one nice lady in the lobby, before the show on press night, when she heard about that running time. From the groan, you would have thought she was getting a colonoscopy without the anesthetics.

Thanks to director Louis Contey, though, this magical tragicomedy seems to fly by in something like 90 minutes, all told, including an intermission. And in a weird, charming way, from its ghoulish vaudeville-type magic act (late in act one), and right on through to the finish, the show just whirls by. Much of act two evokes fond memories of the fancy dress ball in The Rocky Horror Show, before a nice, poetic, hair-raising little speech at the end. Truth to tell, I was really holding my breath when that final soliloquy got under way, wondering if any closing remarks have ever really solved anything. But then, like a stunning magic trick, at the final turn of phrase everything is twisted wildly, and we get a strange new taste of the artist as martyr.

But the martyrdom-of-the-artist angle is pretty constant throughout, one way or another, with Dennis Grimes as a playwright full of dreams, trying to get a play about Jesus and Pontius Pilate off the ground, and facing ridiculous obstacles in Moscow of the 1930s. Mr. Grimes' eventual hysterics (as "The Master") over his own work give us a splendid insight into the artist's own heart of doubt. He also gets blessed assurance from the beautiful Justine Turner, as Margarita, until the two are torn apart by an oppressive artistic regime (here, Stalinism is set against the Roman occupation of Judea, in the Master's own play). And from there on out, it's a seductive, other-worldly story of how two lovers make their impossible journeys back to finding each other again.

Just so you know, nobody turns into a cockroach, and nobody dies constructing the Trans-Siberian railroad, and nobody is forced to carry buckets of urine, like Ivan Denisovich. But it's still pretty dire for the Master, thanks to Mr. Grimes' deliriously self-loathing performance, and the outrageous forces he's up against. Margarita, meantime, is a figure of uneasy fancy and flight, taking up with a gracious, domineering Satan (Tom Hickey) out of hope and hopelessness. But this particular Devil is also a bit of a Prospero who's cast away on a whole planet of Calibans, exacting judgment on all the posing Bolsheviks who foolishly cross his path, while his Technicolor minions strike unnerving poses with dread conviction. He's as subtly stylish as she is lovely and care-worn.

Edward Kemp's dazzling adaptation manages to rebel against both Earthly tyranny and spiritual guilt at the same time, thanks to the regal justice meted out by its strange devils, and the endless, Christ-like suffering of the artist to lead men out of darkness. And, notwithstanding that final (unexpectedly) transformative little speech by a cowering lunatic (Kyle A. Gibson) at the very end, the Dramatic universe does finally seem to regain its natural shape, one way or another.

The mostly monochromatic dress is by the endlessly resourceful Joanna Melville, with make-up by Aly Renee Amidei like something out of The Threepenny Opera. And the swirling, other-worldly movement that makes the second act zoom by is courtesy of choreographer Eileen Mallary. The magic tricks, supplied by Brett Schneider, are mostly for cheap laughs, but director Contey also pulls more than a few surprising rabbits out of his hat, in the course of the night, too.

A mad triumph. Five stars.

Did I like it? Yes, I even liked it.

Through April 2, 2011. The pleasant old black-box theater is located at 3829 North Broadway, Chicago IL, 60613, and up a flight of stairs on the second floor. For more information, visit them on-line at www.strawdog.org or call (773) 528-9696.

Cast
The Master: Dennis Grimes
Margarita: Justine Turner*
Woland: Tom Hickey*
Fagott: Danny Taylor
Behemoth: Anderson Lawfer*
Azazello: Anita Deely*
Hella/Signora Tofana/Magic Hand: Loretta Rezos
Trepan/Caligula/Madame Archibaldikova/Magic Hand: Dan Granata
Rimsky/Lucrezia Borgia/Frieda/Magic Hand: Christy Arington
Varukha/Maitre Jacques/Magic Hand: John Stovkis
Kaifa/Andrei: Cameron Johnson
Pilate/Stravinsky: Ian Maxwell
Ratslayer/Glumov/Jack the Ripper/Magic Hand: Jude Roche
Aloysiius/Secretary/Nurse/Magic Hand: Shane Brady
Berlioz/Archibaldovich/Marquis de Sade/Magic Hand: Ron Thomas
Ivan: Kyle A. Gibson
Pagoda/Robert Dudley/Magic Hand: John Wilson
Natasha/Messalina/Ariman/Magic Hand: Sarah Goeden

Crew
Director: Louis Contey
Scenic Design: Joe Schermoly
Costume Design: Joanna Melville
Lighting Design: Sean Mallary*
Hair & Makeup Design: Aly Renee Amidei*
Sound Design: Mikhail Fiksel*, USA
Properties Design: D.J. Reed
Choreography: Eileen Mallary
Magic Design: Brett Schneider
Dramaturgy: Maren Robinson
Production Manager: Cortney Hurley*
Stage Manager: Ellen Willett
Casting Director: Michael Caloia*

* Denotes Strawdog Company Member


Photo
Chris Ocken

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-- John Olson



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