Review: The Master and Margarita (Strawdog Theatre)

  
  

Strawdog explores intersection of religion, magic, insanity – and actors

  
  

(From L to R): Kyle Gibson (Ivan), Tom Hickey (Woland) and Rob Thomas (Berlioz) in Strawdog's "The Master and Margarita". 
Photo by Chris Ocken

  
Strawdog Theatre presents
  
The Master and Margarita
   
Adapted by Edward Kemp
Based on novel by
Mikhail Bulgakov
Directed by
Louis Contey
at
Strawdog Theatre, 3829 N. Broadway (map)
through April 2  |  tickets: $20  |  more info

Reviewed by Katy Walsh

As artistic differences threaten the theatrical production of Pontius Pilate, Satan arrives in town to set the record straight. Strawdog Theatre presents The Master and Margarita. In anti-religion Moscow, a writer works feverishly to create a masterpiece play. His girlfriend Margarita believes he is ‘The Master’ and is willing to do anything to support his writing. The government’s theatrical department interferes with his show. They want to ensure Pontius Pilate discredits Jesus’ existence. Satan and his cronies visit for a little civilization observation. They also want to get their magic show on the stage. Arrested, committed, beheaded, the poor souls of Russia are in chaos. When Satan sheds insight into mortals’ psyches, the balance of life has a peaceful neutralization. The Master and Margarita blurs the division between magic and religion, imagination and psychoses, theatrical and actual, life and death.

Dennis Grimes (Master) and Justine C. Turner (Margarita) in Strawdog's 'The Master and Margarita'. Photo by Chris Ocken.Is it a play about a play about the historical decision maker Pontius Pilate? Or is it the full blown hallucination from an asylum inmate? Is it pro-religion or just anti- being anti? The Master and Margarita is for certain an epic of biblical portions. On a primarily stark set, crowd scenes are choreographed using cast as colorful and changing scenery. The large ensemble is white-faced (make-up designer Aly Renee Amidei) and sometimes black-masked. (Special nod to Amidei for the Centurion’s makeup: I was transfixed.) The mass unified look effectively emphasizes the alternating mood from theatrical to threatening to comical to spooky. Costume designer Joanna Melville goes hellish, dressing up an underworld ball in goth prom attire. The vibrant swirl of activity is non-stop. Under the direction of Louis Contey, the multiple themes and scene transitions flow smoothly and briskly into the next.

A plethora of Russian names, myriad of actors playing numerous roles, and the whitening effect add to a quandary of identification. Among the easily recognized, the damned bunch are hilarious misfits. Tom Hickey (Woland aka Satan) leads with smug wisdom and a surprising twisted kindness. Anderson Lawfer (Behemoth) is hysterical as a talking cat. Without even that many lines, Lawfer drawls the funny out with a bow tie without pants comment. Double-vision, Danny Taylor (Fagott) has a comedic and mysterious allure. Anita Deely (Azazello) is the non-nonsense assistant from hell. As the enduring lovers, Dennis Grimes (The Master) is a gentle martyr-type and Justine Turner (Margarita) is his strong lovely rescuer. The entire ensemble are convincing as actors playing theatre types, actors playing crazies or actors playing people going to hell… or maybe there isn’t a distinction.

The first act is a bubbling manifesto of intriguing confusion. The intermission is a pause from the frenzy to admit uncertainty to the point of the show. At some point in act two, there is an ‘A-ha moment.‘ All the dots connect for art open to interpretation. To sum it up, the cat said it best in one of the final scenes, ‘now, I get this play!’ What the cat said!

     
     
Rating: ★★★
  
  

Guests at the Ball of the Damned, a scene from "The Master and Margarita". Photo by Chris Ocken

The Master and Margarita continues through April 2nd, with performances Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays at 8pm, Sundays at 4pm. There is no performanceSunday, April 3. Tickets are $20 with group, senior and student discounts available. Tickets may be ordered by calling 773.528.9696 or by visiting www.strawdog.org.

Running Time: Two hours and thirty minutes with a ten minute intermission

     
     

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Review: TimeLine Theatre’s “When She Danced”

 TimeLine crafts a superb production from a flawed script

When She Danced at TimeLine Theatre

TimeLine Theatre presents:

When She Danced

by Martin Sherman
directed by Nick Bowling
thru December 20th (ticket info)

reviewed by Catey Sullivan

Like its depiction of the Isadora Duncan’s life, When She Danced is a glorious, extravagant mess. Amid a cacophony of languages, lobster, lovers and champagne Timeline creates something that’s both richly entertaining and immensely frustrating with Martin Sherman’s portrait of the mother of modern dance.

"When She Danced" at TimeLine Theatre We know La Duncan (who was called such when the article really meant something, unlike today’s trashy La Lohan vernacular) redefined an entire art form. But because film of her dancing is rare unto non-existent, we can only imagine the extraordinary aura of grace and beauty she projected while in motion, inspiring thousands of barefoot disciples the globe over. That very legacy all but ensures that any portrait of Duncan will fall short. Have an actress attempt to dance like Duncan and they will inevitably suffer by comparison. Leave the dancing out, and you lose the essence of the woman’s existence.

Sherman takes the safer route, leaving the dance completely to his audience’s imagination. Rather than choreography, we get rapt exposition by Duncan’s slavishly devoted household coterie. And of course, the lack of a visual is a problem: because we never see Duncan dance, her art – or the lack thereof – becomes the 800-pound gorilla on the set. Dance is the thing that defines not only Duncan, but every relationship and reaction to her. Without it, those relationships and reactions ring a bit hollow. For those who crave a glimpse at the movement that made the legend, When She Danced is a tease. We hear all about the sheer, life-changing fabulousness of Duncan’s dancing, but we never see it.

That said, director Nick Bowling has crafted an immensely watchable and lavishly beautiful production. We meet Isadora (Jennifer Engstrom) in her 40s. She claims to be past her prime, but in Engstrom’s alternately regal and unabashedly sensual performance, Duncan is every inch magnificent. Her Paris flat is in a state of exuberant and sophisticated chaos. Among the larger-than-life personalities coming and going: Duncan’s much younger Russian husband Sergei (Patrick Mulvey), gleefully capturing an unstable firebrand with little but sex and suicide on the brain); Alexandros Eliopolos, an adoring 19-year-old Greek prodigy pianist (Alejandro Cordoba, a major talent who delivers a concert-level Chopin etude midway through the production); and Miss Hanna Belzer (Janet Ulrich Brooks), a Russian translator whose underwritten role nonetheless becomes an emotional cornerstone thanks to Brooks’ quietly galvanizing performance.

"When She Danced" at TimeLine Theatre when-she-danced-2

The languages – Greek, Russian, English French and Italian – fly fast and thick with several in the ensemble never speaking a word of English. Bowling succeeds in making dialogue flow like music. And it’s to the cast’s great credit that even when the words are foreign, the meaning within them shines through.

It’s a shame that all these wonderfully idiosyncratic, effectively etched characters are stuck in a plot that’s rather static. Duncan’s desperate need for money provides the slight arc. The story peaks with a marvelously unconventional fund-raising dinner party that devolves into a rapturous, multi-lingual food fight. But once the rolls stop flying, Sherman doesn’t seem to know what to do with everyone other than have them fade slowly into a blackout.

In all, Bowling has crafted a superb production from a flawed script. It helps that When She Danced looks wonderful, thanks to Keith Pitts at once elegant, impoverished and richly beautiful Parisian flat. Seth E. Reinick’s evocative lighting beautifully emphasizes monologues by Brooks and Cordoba that come almost as close to portraying Duncan’s brilliance as any actual dancing might. Almost.

When She Danced continues through Dec. 20 at TimeLine Theatre, 615 W. Wellington. Tickets are $25 and $35. For more information, call 773/281-8463 or go to www.timelinetheatre.com

Rating: ★★½

 

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