The staging of Mikhail Bulgakov’s novel “The Master and Margarita,” begun in 1928 but published only posthumously in 1966, is a demanding feat for a number of reasons. The novel not only features the fantastic exploits of the devil and his entourage, deeds difficult to portray on stage, but also depicts parallel plot lines divided by thousands of years and millions of miles. And the novel tackles such weighty issues beneath an often easy tone that it is all a lot to cram into one show. The Yale School of Drama’s performance this week of the play, adapted by Yuri Lyubimov and directed by Will Frears, pulls it off admirably.
Indeed, the play’s loyalty to Bulgakov’s novel is astounding. On the minutest of levels, the actors often speak, not only the lines of their characters, but also a third-person description of their own actions and thoughts, as though the novel’s narrator were momentarily impinging on the actor’s voice. The play follows the novel’s structurally difficult plotting diligently, taking us back and forth between Jerusalem and Moscow, between scenes from the time of Jesus’ crucifixion and those from the 1920s Soviet literary world.
In Moscow, the devil (Mark Mattek) has entered the city under the guise of Woland, a foreign professor of black magic. He has come at a time of atheism and greed, of intellectual pretension and moral degradation, both to survey and wreak havoc on the citizens. But Woland, along with his entourage — Korovyov (Patrick Huey DRA ’01), Woland’s prime underling, Azazello (William Theodore Thompson II), a brutish creature of some sort, Hella (Sarah Elliot), a mystical, leather-clad woman, and Behemoth (Edward O’Blenis), a talking cat — raise a hell that is not evil so much as it is playful. The devil’s troupe is mischievous, not evil; they themselves are not wholly malevolent, but have come to expose and mock the degeneration of the world and specifically the Soviet regime.
The actors pull off portraying these devilish, but not evil, characters wonderfully. Huey as Korovyov is wildly theatrical and condescending; Thompson’s Azazello is almost sweet in his brutishness; O’Blenis as Behemoth is loud and antsy, but ultimately servile. And Mattek, the devil himself, is soft-spoken, blase, and often cheerful: He condemns the citizens in his midst but is nonetheless a gentle figure. And when the group encounters Margarita (Bess Wohl DRA ’02) and the Master (Nicholas Pepper DRA ’01), around whom all the plots of the play converge, we see that the devil, though in the end morally ambiguous, can serve good.
The Master and Margarita stand out as figures unmarred by the greed and pettiness of the society that the devil mocks. And in the end it is the devil who brings about their ultimate salvation and happiness.
These scenes of Moscow alternate with those, much heavier in tone, of Jerusalem, of the crucifixion of Jesus and the mental suffering and eventual forgiveness of Pontius Pilate. Through these parallel plot lines, the heavier themes of the play are brought to the fore: The existence of the devil belies the existence of God and goodness; what we think of as evil is necessary in the world. Indeed, as Woland himself says, “What would the world look like without shadows?”
The scenes vary widely in tone, but Frears manages to integrate them all well. Through the masterful use of lighting, sound effects, crafty staging and an impressive set, the Moscow scenes are magical and fantastic. In Jerusalem, the lighting changes, the set (especially at the scene of the crucifixion) becomes more imposing, and the tone becomes quieter and more serious. Here, too, the actors are masterful — so that when the two plots end up converging and characters from Moscow meet those from Jerusalem, the union seems appropriate.
In the end, though, Frears’ loyalty to the text is admirable, perhaps such a direct translation from the novel wasn’t quite necessary. At a certain point the devilish antics, though always technically well done, begin to wear a little thin; it seems as though we don’t really need every scene from the book to be played out, for, not only does it make for a three-and-a-half-hour play, but it also makes for one that becomes slightly redundant. On the other hand, it also means that the play is thematically rich and structurally complex, so that ultimately the effort is worthwhile.
The Master and Margarita
Friday at 8 p.m.,
Saturday at 2 and 8 p.m.
Info: (203) 432-1234 (Sch. of Drama)