While it may very well be argued that Seattle has been characterised by the nineties since, well, the nineties (I certainly can’t recall a year where flannel wasn’t the shirt of choice for just about anyone), one can’t deny that it’s the decade in vogue. With chokers and velvet skater dresses reappearing and reboots of all the (now) cult classics showing up on television again, it’s not altogether surprising that the theatrical world would also return to an old favourite. Theatre simple’s The Master and Margarita first debuted in 1997, under director Rachel Katz Carey, and last Friday an updated version took to the stage, again under Katz Carey, at Theatre Off Jackson.
The aesthetic experience of watching The Master and Margarita is difficult to put into words. Everything from costume designer Doris Black’s sartorial choices to Jason Meininger’s lighting decisions seems perfectly formulated to create an unforgettable visual encounter. The quality of acting amplifies this experience, even with the challenge the show’s five actors take on by portraying thirty-five different characters, and the passion all have the project is clear in that every single one of them seem to be having the time of their lives. Even the live band members, Scott Adams and Julie Baldridge, exude exuberance. The premise of the work is that the devil (Monique Kleinhans) comes to Stalin-era Moscow to assess whether or not human nature has changed with the October Revolution (as a side note, Kleinhans subtle performance has ensured that I will forever associate the devil with a woman in a suit playing the clarinet against a brick wall), though the overarching storyline deals with The Master (Teague M. Parker), so-called by his literary-inclined girlfriend, Margarita (Jennifer Faulkner), writing a novel about Pilates Pontius’ (Llysa Holland) dealings with Yeshua Ha-Notsri (aka, Jesus Christ, played by Parker) and the consequences the author faces under Soviet Censorship.
Confused yet? While the outrageous comedy’s plot makes more sense on stage than in the explanation given here, the production’s main struggle is its narrative content. The Master and Margarita is based on the novel by the same name, written by Mikhail Bulgakov under Stalin’s regime, though it wasn’t published until 1967. The first half of the play is spent in captivated confusion, and while the multi-genre, interweaving story line starts to come together in the second half, the point is never made fully clear, even with a historical understanding of 1930s Russia.
However, the show doesn’t ever seem to suffer from this ostensibly damnatory flaw. Perhaps it’s the sheer enthusiasm of the cast, of whom Nathan Brockett in particular stands out, (his roles include an extended, full-frontal nude scene as a poet driven mad, a fabulous talking cat, and a sinister, leather duster wearing exterminator, each of which he embodies not only fully, but vivaciously) or the relatability of their roles (Holland’s Pontonius hates his job and his boss). Or it could be the fast-paced nature of a hundred and ten minute show without intermission. Most likely it’s the culmination of the sheer talent from everyone involved. Regardless, while The Master and Margarita may not be fully engaging, it’s definitely alluring and well worth a trip down to the International District.
Theater simple’s The Master and Margarita plays at Theatre off Jackson through April 27. Nudity (equal opportunity) and mature themes make it appropriate for adult audiences. Tickets and more info available here.