Goodman Theatre

Black Snow opens as Sergei Maxudov, a poor young writer who despairs of being published, pins a suicide note to his coat and mounts a chair to hang himself. But he can’t quite get his neck in the rope. He grabs his huge unpublished manuscript and plops it on the chair. Yes! His writing had a purpose–to boost him into the next world.

A gem of gallows humor, this sight gag sets the mock-heroic tone for Keith Reddin’s adaptation of Mikhail Bulgakov’s novel Black Snow, a ruthless expose of the Soviet intelligentsia circa 1926. This gag is also the first of countless deft satirical touches in Michael Maggio’s hilarious staging, which accumulate to create one of the most scathing spoofs of the theater since Light Up the Sky or All About Eve.

From James Joyce’s Stephen Dedalus to the Who’s Tommy, the frustrated artist incarnates the corruption of genius by power. Bulgakov (author of The Master and Margarita and Heart of a Dog) knew this scenario well; the state virtually silenced him following the 1926 failure of Days of the Turbins, a play that seemed to sympathize with the despised White faction in the postrevolutionary civil war. But Bulgakov also worked to silence himself, burning his own manuscripts and demanding permission from Stalin to leave the country.

Unfinished at Bulgakov’s early death in 1940, Black Snow (ironically first titled Diary of a Dead Man) bears a sad, posthumous message: repression relies on do-it-yourself censorship–but if a writer won’t do it, the state’s theater will. The novel satirized Bulgakov’s turbulent career with the Moscow Art Theater and its quirky guru, Konstantin Stanislavsky, the inventor of the Method system, a pseudoobjective technique of emotional recall or inner realism that depends dangerously on the actor’s channeled subjectivity or “motivation.” Bulgakov indicts the pointlessness of this laborious, self-indulgent approach: endless, aimless rehearsals (290 of them for his homage to Moliere, A Cabal of Hypocrites) during which actors pondered everything but the play.

Reddin’s adaptation, a Goodman world premiere, draws on Bulgakov’s notes and letters to “complete” his novel, though it curiously shies away from depicting Bulgakov’s Stalinist censorship and concentrates instead on the squabbles of temperamental artistes. To suggest this commedia dell’arte world of sycophants, posturers, backbiters, and ass lickers, Reddin lets loose a torrent of cartoonish scenes that employ cardboard cutouts, 3-D picture frames, expressionistic dream sequences, and giant Mardi Gras figures of famous playwrights. The result is a marvel of bittersweet particularity.

Perhaps one reason Sergei doesn’t kill himself at the start is that he hasn’t suffered enough to deserve death; Black Snow means to drive him to a more sincere suicide. Saved at first, he watches his novel somehow pass the censors and has one installment published, but then his mysterious publisher disappears. Hope again rears its head when Sergei learns a theater wants to commission a play from his novel. But the theater is the Independent Theater, a monstrous bureaucracy that, like Hollywood, swallows scripts and spits out playwrights.

Sergei enters a new nightmare with the Independent. Browbeaten by the manager, he signs a wretched contract full of clauses that begin “the author shall not . . .” He dictates his manuscript to an imperious and lovelorn stenographer who changes the play to suit her tastes. He pleads for help from a harried and psychopathic box-office manager, suffers the disdain of an envious associate, wrestles with mixed messages from a passive-aggressive director, and endures rehearsals that dissolve into internecine warfare. And before the play can even open it’s attacked by a splenetic critic, who pans it because of its poster.

But Sergei’s true nemesis is Ivan Vasilievich, Bulgakov’s Stanislavsky stand-in, a tyrant whose gorgeous smoky entrance (lifted right out of The Wizard of Oz) ends the first act on a note of oriental magnificence. Ivan combines booming megalomania, multifaceted eccentricities, and an unerring instinct for the artistically irrelevant. He orders an elderly actor to emote love while riding a bicycle and commands the cast to practice presenting bouquets to one another, a scene that’s nowhere in Sergei’s script.

When Sergei tries to take his play (about which, significantly, we learn little) elsewhere, the Independent threatens to deep-six it. His subsequent convulsive mad scene postpones any production and prompts his third suicide attempt. It’s the play’s one sympathetic character, Sergei’s kindly friend Bombardov, who preserves the notes that will become this play.

If the second act sags a bit, it’s because Sergei, now more or less alienated from the idiots around him, is pushed to the sidelines: his last self-destructive act seems curiously anticlimactic, while the show’s finale–a writer’s apotheosis, with Sergei’s words echoing through the theater–comes off as glorified wishful thinking. And Reddin is far gentler in depicting the government’s repression than Bulgakov would have been–a sad failure of nerve–but his indictment of the theater is refreshingly universal (unlike the potshots taken in John Logan’s Showbiz).

Best of all are Maggio’s rollicking staging, which makes this a glorious roller coaster of a comedy, and the exuberant acting of the 15 actors in 40 roles. Oddly enough, Black Snow wouldn’t be half as funny–or Kafkaesque–if Bruce Norris weren’t so earnest as Sergei. Anchoring the excesses with his delicious deadpan, Norris is a marvel of quicksilver takes, a foil for everything around him. When he erupts in the mad scene, we see the insanity he’s internalized far better than a Method actor could have shown it.

If anyone needs more proof that Maggio is the ultimate actor’s director, it’s in the ensemble’s combustible mix of expected shtick and unexpected sentiment (as in the witty use of Miriam Sturm as the writer’s bewildered violinist muse). Barbara Robertson’s spitfire secretary, William Norris’s simpering rival playwright, Jordan Charney’s impresario, John Mohrlein’s bilious author buster, Tom Mula’s false friend, and a host of other swift takes create a Daumier universe filled with covetous incompetents, the kind of realm a self-respecting playwright should be glad to leave behind.

The technical wizardry here serves the script like a dream, though that isn’t always the case at the Goodman. Linda Buchanan’s menacing, two-tiered set provides the perfect neutral ground for the ingenious rolling props, Martin Pakledinaz’s color-coordinated costumes, Rob Milburn’s clanging prisonlike sound design, and James F. Ingalls’s scalpel-sharp lighting. Little seems unfinished about this Bulgakov.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Eric Y. Exit.