New Crime Productions

at the Famous Door Theatre Company


Lookingglass Theatre

at Steppenwolf Studio Theatre

It makes good sense and strong story telling. Chicago’s two most distinctive troupes, Lookingglass Theatre and New Crime Productions–both companies prized for their visceral style, ingenuity, and acrobatic acting–have taken inspiration from a once-banned Russian novelist.

Forget that Mikhail Bulgakov (1891-1940) died a quarter century before most of these actors were born. His difficult masterpiece The Master and Margarita and his scorching satire The Heart of a Dog seem ripe for high-flying theaters with no safety nets. Potent with larger-than-life images and outsize emotions, Bulgakov’s works (like his theater spoof Black Snow, brilliantly produced by the Goodman last year) demand risk takers.

In The Heart of a Dog, set in 1925, a repressive Moscow apartment building becomes a scathing microcosm of Soviet society. Frenetically skewed and slapstick-subtle, the crazed commedia of New Crime Productions, staged by Jeremy Piven, serves Bulgakov to perfection. Much of the credit goes to Frank Galati’s cunning adaptation.

Greedily occupying a suite of seven rooms, the apartment building’s celebrity tenant is a professor who cosmetically alters the elite of a “classless” society, rejuvenating divas with monkey ovaries and offering codgers a second stab at love–at the risk of turning their hair green. His latest experiment–to turn Sharik, a mangy, streetwise Moscow mutt, into a human through a pituitary implant–misfires when the dog develops the flaws of the brawling thug who gave him his gland.

Sharik, now Polygraph Polygraphovich Sharikov, reverts to killing cats for profit, while the professor is denounced as a counterrevolutionary by tenants who covet his rooms. At the end Sharikov is reduced to contented Sharik, forgetting he was ever raised above his species.

If Bulgakov’s repudiation of the attempt to create a new socialist citizen (or, viewed differently, his protest against tampering with nature) feels fatalistic now, in Stalin’s time it could only seem subversive. In 1994 it can be savored as a critique of genetic engineering. The madcap surgery in which Sharik loses his doggy identity is wicked vaudeville, its gross-out high jinks depicted in silhouettes, strobe lights, and a hurricane of sound effects. Though the play’s satire sags near the end, it’s not New Crime’s fault; Bulgakov can’t stop playing anarchic tricks, not all of them sidesplitting.

New Crime’s signature style seems uniquely suited to Bulgakov’s caricatures. Like pancake-faced escapees from an Edward Gorey illustration, the inexhaustible players mug emotions with pop-eyed wonder, their lines punctuated by Jef Bek’s drums and Gregory Hirte’s wailing violin.

B.T. Powell as the crackbrained professor and Paul Adelstein as his henchman swell with the pomposity of cultural commissars. Completing the demented household, Dana Eskelson as the brittle maid and Marilyn Dodds Frank as the outraged housekeeper offer hilarious deadpan reactions. As the professor’s resentful neighbors, Magica Bottari and Susan Karsnick incarnate the humorless correctness of faceless bureaucrats.

The big credit goes to David Sinaiko. Resembling Mel Brooks at his snappiest, Sinaiko’s foul-mouthed, earthy Sharik (in a brilliant canine costume by Kent Jones, Xander Berkeley, and Heather Ann Priest) is everything Lassie never dared to be: stupid, greedy, and opportunistic. Sharikov resembles Vladimir Zhirinovsky all too completely.

Priest’s cartoonish costumes turn everyone louder than life. Tom McKeon’s animated set practically chews its own scenery and Robert G. Smith’s lighting colors it like a demented finger painting. The production also features a clever newsreel parody that chronicles Sharik’s chaotic transplant like so much war footage.

The Master and Margarita has lately proved hot theater stock. In November the Chicago Actors Ensemble debuted Rick Helweg’s darkly hued treatment; next Thursday the UIC Theater opens its version of the seminal work. But it’s hard to imagine a more exhaustive adaptation (by Heidi Stillman and the ensemble) than Lookingglass’s fatally ambitious, three-hour tour de force. Impressive but not expressive, the production fuses the physical dazzle of flying actors, magic tricks, folk dance, gymnastics, ribald mime, and optical illusions with tensile acting. Fast moving, yes. Deeply moving, not at all.

The plot of The Master and Margarita doesn’t build, it mutates like a fever dream, playing variations on everything from Goethe’s Faust to the Gospel of Matthew. The turbulence of postrevolutionary Moscow is invaded by a greater disturbance–Woland, a professor of black magic who’s followed by a grotesque retinue that includes a redheaded goon, an epicene majordomo, a decrepit vampiress, and a dapper cat. Woland is the devil, here to see if the revolution has changed the hearts of Russians.

He soon makes his own changes. The ardent poet Ivan is unhinged by Woland’s ability to create disaster. Institutionalized, Ivan meets the Master, who has penned an unpublished but much-condemned novel about Pilate and Jesus. The Master’s muse Margarita strikes a bargain with the devil, inducing Woland to complete the Master’s novel.

There’s not a stop that directors Stillman and David Catlin don’t pull out, from Michael Lapthorn’s dream set (a huge lunar sphere, revolving panels, and intricate rigging of ropes and harnesses), John Musial’s supple lighting and gorgeous projections, Allison Reeds’s expressionistic costumes, and Eric Huffman’s sound design.

In trademark Lookingglass style, the cast of 12 are always game: they hang by their feet from trapezes, swing out over the audience, do back flips, and dangle high above in a crucifixion tableau. In one hilarious trick a cynic played by David Kersnar has his head taken off, tossed around, and screwed back on–then goes crazy.

Andrew White has contagious fun as prankster Woland but takes him no further than that; his devilish entourage (Thomas J. Cox, Joey Slotnick, Douglas Hara, and Christine Dunford) is a marvel of Grand Guignol imagination. As ever-astonished Ivan, Mariann Mayberry produces honest reactions that mirror our own. If Philip R. Smith offers a sly and matter-of-fact Master, Joy Gregory’s high-flying Margarita supplies the play’s emotional payoff, a graceful portrait of unconditional love and idealized inspiration.

The most accomplished work comes from David Schwimmer, who neatly moves from a tormented Pilate to an unctuous Soviet therapist.

Neither as entertaining as Arabian Nights nor as original as The Notebooks of Leonardo da Vinci, this production is no Lookingglass triumph. The novel’s excess is exacerbated by an adaptation that never seems on top of its meandering plot. The profusion of events, easy to pace when you read the novel, only daunts onstage.

It’s hard to argue that Master and Margarita is greater than its flashy parts. No question, when the Lookingglass visionaries find what works, they’ll stir it into art. Meanwhile too much technique and a lot of unprocessed story telling mar an audience’s purer pleasures.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Dexter Bullard.