Theater

The Devil Returns to Seattle: Master and Margarita

A date with a devil in Theater Simple’s Master and Margarita. Photo by Chris Bennion

When The Group Theater opened Clifford Odets’ Awake and Sing! on Feb 19th 1935, Brooks Atkinson wrote the next day in the New York Times that the play “in spite of its frenzy, is inexplicably deficient in plain, theatre emotion,” and that Harold Clurman’s direction was “overwrought and shrill.” When Atkinson saw the play again a month later, he acclaimed it highly. His revised opinion found its way into print four years later when the play was revived:

When Clifford Odets’s “Awake and Sing!” burst in the face of an unsuspecting public four years ago, some of the misanthropes complained that it was praised too highly. Misanthropes are always wrong. For it is plain…that “Awake and Sing!” cannot be praised too highly…. “Awake and Sing!” remains one of the most stirring plays of this generation in the theatre.

Why did Atkinson have such a reversal of opinion? As the anecdote goes, after he saw the show four weeks after he’d panned its opening, Atkinson met with Clurman after the show and asked, excitedly, “Has the play changed, Harold?” To which Clurman elegantly replied, “No, Brooks, you have.”

I am thinking about this as I sit down to write about Theater Simple’s remix of Master and Margarita. I loved the original production; I saw it five times. My memories of it remain strong. In 1997, I’d just returned to the United States after a long series of sojourns in Asia and Europe, and the USA I returned to had clearly gone off its rails. I’d seen Master and Margarita on Polish television.

Perhaps it was timing and circumstance. Nevertheless I thought then, as I do now, that it was one of the finest productions I had ever seen in Seattle and I wished it had been staged four years earlier when I was still a highly active journalist. It was a clean, well-considered distillation of the novel, drawing heavily on pantomime and other things I associated with the circus, something like a Fellini film gone Slavophile.

The circus metaphor of Theater Simple’s then-production fit everything so perfectly. It was a play that perfectly fit its time. And mine. I was 27.

Those times are long gone.

Yeshua gives Pilate a headache. Photo by Chris Bennion.

One of the main themes of the novel is that Mephistopheles (aka Professor Woland) has returned to Moscow to hold his lurid ball, but also to see if Muscovites have really changed internally from all their supposedly brilliant social engineering. And just as the Devil has returned to Moscow, so Master and Margarita has returned to Seattle. Have Seattleites really changed? Has the production? Has the relationship of theater to the audience?

While it may surprise many people who think Seattle is dying and that it has become unrecognizable, I find that the answer is very little here has changed. Just as the good professor finds that Muscovites remain pretty much the same, despite their trams and buses and apparatuses, Seattleites remain pretty much the same despite their shiny new buildings, ubiquitous cell phones, and pretentious light rail.

When the original production debuted here, Seattle was in the middle of a ridiculously inflated dot-com boom where the only money being made was companies selling their own stock. Amazon was one of these. The same greed drives Seattle today, as it has since the days when Seattle made a cottage industry out of ripping off miners on their way to and from the Alaska Gold Rush. The city is still filled with transient gold diggers, only now they call each other “bro” instead of “cheechako.”

Too, just like the Muscovites in Master and Margarita, they remain ridiculously obsessed with their appearance, only Seattleites don’t worry so much about personal appearance as they do about civic appearance to other cities. Everyone wants homeless people gone now, just as they did in the 1970s and 80s and 90s and every decade I’ve lived through, but not out of kindness or even politesse. They want the homeless gone because it makes Seattle look bad, and it’s bad for tourism and suburban feeding frenzies at the mall.

Given that Seattle has remained very much the same inwardly, what about the production? If, like Brooks Atkinson, I were to ask the folks at Theater Simple if their play had changed, they might wittily retort “No, you have,” too. But of course the play has changed.

Anyone taking on the task of Master and Margarita has to make two key decisions:

  1. Which is most important, politics or poetics?
  2. What do we do about music?

This production, as did the original production, comes down on the side of politics. That decision makes the production lean heavily on the social satire. When I was in my 20s this was greatly appealing. It still appeals to me. But satire has become much more difficult, so much so that there are lawyers and university professors calling for it to be regulated.

A dapper devil (Monique Kleinhans). Photo by John Ulman.

The first problem of a contemporary production is: what’s the object of the satire? Despite the massive size of their country, Russians believed they were largely homogeneous. It’s the foundation of the Soviet mythos. Contemporary America has the diametrically opposite problem: Americans are so convinced of the sacredness of their heterogeneity that most of them don’t believe they have anything in common with people not from their chosen identity label. This makes it difficult to present as a satire of contemporary America.

When I first saw the original production, the Soviet Union had only been gone barely five years, and every high school student and adult had grown up with memories and opinions about the “evil” Russkies. Now an entire generation now has grown up with absolutely no memory of the Soviet Union. That makes it difficult to present it as an American satire of their enemies’ folly.

I’m not sure the new production has solved this problem so much as it has sidestepped it. It still works as satire for me, but then I am fifty, and I’ve read the novel six or seven times. I wonder how it comes across to a 27 year-old.

Theater Simple’s solution to the music problem has been to sucker the audience into scat singing at the top of the show, while weaving Brent Arnold’s small-scale incidental music throughout. He wrote the music for the original production, so it’s all perfectly sensible. It works for me, but as with Question #1 above, I had a nagging feeling.

I’ve finally identified that nag. It comes down to one thing: I want more.

Theater Simple’s production remains outstanding. I love watching the actors work. It’s the best of what Peter Brook liked to call Rough Theater, something of which Seattle desperately needs a heroic dose. Everything is clarified down to its essentials. The stagecraft is minimal with a handful of translucent screens, a portable ghost light, and a suitcase with lilacs. Five actors whirl through the multiple characters and multiple layers of the text. There is absolutely nothing to get in the way of the purity of acting, which is natural and superb. Llysa Holland and Monique Kleinhans are excellent, as they should be after living with the production as long as they have, and the new faces are also interesting. Jennifer Faulkner interprets Margarita with resolute, fiery aplomb behind a politely civilized veneer in that way that makes Russian women in literature so amazing. Teague M. Parker and Nathan Brockett have an excellent chemistry onstage and seem to delight in the madness of the action yet know when to ramp it down and play their quieter interpersonal moments with delicacy. Director Rachel Katz Carey has streamlined every scene to be as crystalline as possible and obviously understands Bulgakov.

One version of The Master reads the Manuscript with Margarita. Photo: Chris Bennion.

If I were inclined to nostalgia, I could still get all warm and fuzzy thinking about how my youth has been preserved, blah blah blah. But I’m not nostalgic, and that nagging feeling of wanting more is currently foremost in my mind as I write this. Let me clarify: I could hardly want more from Theater Simple, or their production. It’s a jewel, and I appreciate it as such. I want more Bulgakov. Master and Margarita can generate and sustain far more exploration. Its poetic level has barely been touched here — imagine those being taken up by a company that specializes in language plays. Its innate musical references similarly remain unplumbed — imagine a cast of actors reinvesting the piece with Gounod’s Faust and Russian folk songs and American Tin Pan Alley jazz. I want it all. I want more classic writers. I want more experimental writers. I want more ambitious groups. And I want more — and more intelligent — theater. Which returns me to the third question —

I’ve answered what I thought about Seattleites being changed internally. I’ve answered whether the production has changed. I haven’t answered anything yet about the relationship of theater to the world at large.

When I first starting writing professionally about theater, there was a schism between the big, boring theaters like the Rep and Intiman and the smaller fringe theaters. The big, boring theaters believed and acted as though attending the theater was supposed to be a black tie affair, reserved for the rich and stuffy.

By contrast there was the attitude of Annex Theatre’s John Sylvain:

Our audience — and the audience for most fringe theaters — is the 18-to-30 crowd…. It’s largely the same group that goes to movies. Our admission price is $6, the same as for a movie. We also get a lot of people who have never been to the theater before.

Mr. Sylvain’s approach was the one that captured my fancy. Despite being a filmmaker, I saw way more plays than I did big screen movies, helped by the attitude of companies like Annex, Bricolage, Theater Under the Influence, New Mercury, and Seattle Public Theater, and by the presence of things like Ticket/Ticket where anyone could score discount tickets on the night of the show. That theater should be affordable and seek out the young was the de rigueur attitude among producers.

That attitude no longer exists, not like that. I cannot imagine an artistic director of any company in town saying, as one did back, that anyone charging more than the price of a movie is an asshole. Furthermore, today’s theater producers don’t imagine themselves in competition with the cinema. And they’re right. Theater now doesn’t have to compete with movies or concerts or YouTube. Theater has to compete with the American desire to stay inside, at home, where it’s safe and familiar.

Artists are up against it wherever they turn. Cinema has retreated into the completely familiar — witness the proliferation of remakes and sequels — and theater, likewise, has reverted back to wooing aging audiences who can’t kick the habit (or audiences comprised of friends and family alone) with material that is positively quotidian. The so-called little theaters are every bit as culpable as the big and boring.

In such a social environment, it is surely a difficult task to pull together a show built upon creative disorientation like Theater Simple’s Master and Margarita. Similar to Theater Simple’s “non-rules” for producing, I wrote out my own principles back then:

  1. The audience is intelligent and will do their own research,
  2. Poetic faith is the lifeblood of theater as in any art,
  3. Drama needs its history as surely as it needs its present, and
  4. The theater is more than any other art a place where the social existence of human beings plays out in microcosm.

Despite being twenty-two years older than when I last saw Theater Simple’s Master and Margarita, I have held to those principles. And apparently, they have held to theirs, too. To do so is a statement of great optimism in a pessimistic milieu, because very few other groups could even begin to talk about principles, so immersed they are in their accounting books and their outreach programs.

But it’s difficult not to think it all rather quaint, too. I don’t have the feeling that Theater Simple’s latest version of Master and Margarita is a museum piece, or a nostalgia trip. Instead I have the feeling that it is a piece out of joint, in a time that is out of joint. I’m not so sure that it is a piece for this absurd time, but then I’m not sure anything is. At the very least, despite its foreignness, it has the ability to do things that art needs to do. Sometimes art is propaganda for a better tomorrow. Sometimes it is propaganda for a sensible today. This production is neither. It is a reminder: despite what people try to accomplish in their political and social machinations, it’s likely that things will have a shinier polish but remain exactly the same beneath the patina. And no matter how old people get or how allegedly sophisticated they think they are, one needs the occasional sober reminder to keep humble.

It’s a modest goal, but a necessary one. In today’s mad America, that may be the best one can do.