What is truth? Satan’s hung out on Pontius Pilate’s balcony, had breakfast with Kant, and now he’s up for a jaunty holiday through Moscow. But will the unexpectedly mortal nature of man be enough to feed his musing folly? Annex Theater has contrived something completely absurd with their production of The Master and Margarita, adapted to the stage by Jacob Budenz from the novel of Mikhail Bulgakov. Budenz, who also serves as the show’s director, and the company invite you to applaud both its expertise in being erratic, evocative, and engaging, as well as its exposé, which keeps you on your mental toes over the course of the evening. With striking visual imagery and haunting aural soundscapes, the production follows in the vein of Annex’s season of hyper-sensory stimulation, though does so over the course of a much longer performance. Dare to take the journey with them as they wander into the whimsical, meander into madness, stroll through the strange, and the devil knows what else on this three hour cruise of Russian literary convolution turned stage performance.
Be fully prepared for an edgy experience with Budenz’ adaptation of this novel. The characters invite the audience to wiggle their toes in the pool of the peculiar in the first act but it’s a balls deep Olympic swan dive into the distorted and devilishly demented world of the demon king by the second act. Intentionally convoluted and purposefully tangling three major plot lines over the course of the play, the performance encapsulates a world of magical realism and hints at absurdism in addition to touching on philosophy, religion, and the socialist class structure of Russia. Conversations are easily sparked from the dialogue and interactions that are played out across the evening’s stage traffic making for an intriguing experience for everyone in the audience.
The play’s current pacing lacks drive in small pockets. While there are exciting moments and fascinating scene play among the energetic performers, there are also a great many lulls in the action and overall occurrence that could stand tightening, though with time this should occur naturally. Budenz’ gender-blind and gender-balanced casting broadens the playing field and creates a welcoming environment for meaty performances across the board. The white elephant in the room for the performance seems to be the liberal doses of gratuitous nudity. While having Hella, a naked satanic witch, exist exclusively in the buff for the performance serves its purpose of character definition, as does the scene of parading Margarita in the blood-streaked nude through the midnight ball, there are a great many other occurrences of nudity throughout the performance feel superfluous.
Budenz’ overall vision of the show is dramatically enhanced by the design team. Projections Designer David Crandall uses striking imagery projected onto the framework around the play space to augment Scenic Painter Douglas Johnson’s impressionist-esque backdrops. Johnson, along with Set Design Team members Evan Moritz and Zac Lawhon, create stirring visual canvases that could be described as gritty water color paintings of tragic beauty. The most striking by far is the bedroom seen for Margarita, featuring a floor that is subtly reminiscent of Monet’s famous Water Lilies. Crandall also infuses the scenic interactions with moving projections, most frequently those of flames, which are paired to perfection with his sound design.
Crandall’s soundscape (co-created with Dan Hanrahan) is both haunting and intriguing. The twisted tinkle of a whirling calliope hints at the circus of humanity tangled into the carnival of sin and iniquity. The droll thrumming of a tuba during the funeral scene at the park hones sharply in on the emotional tingle in the atmosphere. Crandall and Hanrahan’s finest work is juxtaposing sounds— like the licking crackle of flames or the striking claps of thunder— against his moving projections, creating magical realism on both the visual and aural spectrum. Adding a striking finishing touch to these visually harrowing moments, Lighting Designer Rick Gerriets carves out niches of pathos with his sharp infusion of light. Slivers and slices of yellow that frame various individuals on the floor are some of his finest work, and more memorable moments of his design featured throughout the performance.
Costumer Nicolette La Faye goes couture crazy with what arrives in the production. There is much to be said about all of the costumes featured for all of the principal characters, particularly the dapper duds featured on the Boss of Black Magic Woland, but the radiant gem of La Faye’s creation is the parade of party patrons in the second act. With costumes that defy description, La Faye’s outpour of sartorial selections captures the essence of magical realism and turns it into tangible togs for at least a dozen minor characters. A representative sampling of every style that has ever trod the boards at Annex Theater, La Faye dazzles the audience with these wildly chimerical costumes.
Two thumbs up are owed to Properties Designer Meg Peterson for the frighteningly authentic looking severed head that is featured on multiple occasions throughout the performance. Without wishing to spoil any of the magic, just whose head it resembles shall be left to the imagination, but it is startlingly accurate in its aesthetic. Peterson provides a great many mystically enticing props to the performance, most are small but careful in their detail and worth praising for the polished “finishing touches” look they add to the show.
Each of the performers finds their comfortable home among these characters that they have been assigned, not the least of which includes the entourage ensemble that appears whenever Satan requires them to. Hella (Sarah Jacqueline) the fiery nudist witch, Behemoth (Theresa Columbus) the talking cat, Azazello (Emily Classen) the futuristic enchanter, and Koroviev (Samy El-Noury) the faithful servant. Columbus and El-Noury are often featured in each other’s company, plotting and planning nifty nefarious deeds together, the end result of which is often a ferocious conflagration of actual flames. El-Noury has a spastic and excitable energy that is most soundly reflected in his facial features while Columbus’ energy is more mellow, though not without its claws when it comes to sassing back at Woland.
Classen possesses a unique spirit, somewhat sardonic with a sprinkling of deadpan in the textual delivery of the character, particularly when it comes to interacting with Margarita (Autumn Breaud) on the first encounter. Jacqueline, as the naked hell witch, says precious little but delivers a deeply disturbing intensity with sharply focused stares and heavily layered eye-makeup. Jacqueline uses physicality and stillness as a means of expression in addition to having expressive eyes.
Horribly eloquent, Jonathan Jacobs as Berlioz strikes up the philosophically engaging conversation with Bezdomny (Caitlin Weaver) early on. Jacobs milks his moments post-discussion for what they’re worth, but does so carefully so as not to get ahead of his character’s brief existence. Weaver, as the downtrodden poet, has several interactions that are worth noting, particularly the interaction with the letter once alone in the asylum cell. This moment is striking both because of the subdued lighting and Weaver’s emotional intensity that drives the frenetic energy contained therein.
Terrance Flemming is another performer of the ensemble-focused show that delivers extremely heightened emotional moments of catharsis, particularly when raging on the hill as Levi Matvei at the scene of the crucifixion. Versatile of voice as Flemming switches accents to play more minor and uncredited characters, the audience gets the full sense of a performance spectrum from Flemming, particularly during the encounter with Pontius Pilate (Lucia A. Treasure) near the show’s natural conclusion.
Treasure takes up the dual role of Pilate and The Master. Caitlin Weaver should be given an additional nod for playing Pilate’s dog, for which a great deal of humor is encountered during the final scene featuring Pilate and Matvei. As the wizened Pilate, Treasure is sagely grounded in the character’s thoughts. This carries over but is transformed when Treasure takes up playing The Master, the mellowed nature of the merciful ruler now shifted into a dysthymic melancholy that burbles gently beneath the surface. Creating a polar opposite in both the role of Margarita and Yeshua, Autumn Breaud is the perfect foil for Treasure’s dual casting. Simple, sweet, yet strikingly present, Breaud is the perfect fit not only for Yeshua, but for Margarita, particularly once she becomes invisible and free, going over the moon with enthusiasm to attend the devil’s ball.
There is no finer a specimen of magic present in this production than Martin Kasey and the portrayal of Woland. Infused with the treacherous magic of the prince of darkness right from the onset, Kasey delivers a silver-tongued serpent consistently throughout the show. There is a fascinatingly maddening quality to the way in which Kasey constructs Woland, not quite flippant and yet a little irreverent, petulant but powerful and truly enticing, almost seductive. A remarkably dense character, Woland is well suited to Kasey’s performance and vice versa.
A show that will at the very least arouse the imagination, Annex Theater’s The Master and Margarita offers a plethora of poignancies to ponder. The devil only knows when you’ll get a chance to see something like this on the stage in Charm City again so don’t miss your opportunity to do so now while the midnight moon is still high in the sky.
Running Time: Approximately 3 hours and 10 minutes with one intermission