Chicago Actors Ensemble

Mikhail Bulgakov’s The Master and Margarita is considered the satirist’s definitive work, though he was still polishing it up at the time of his death, in 1940. This novel is filled with mighty oppositions–the writer against the state, Jesus against Pilate, and the devil, a stand-in for Stalin, versus all. But by the novel’s end Bulgakov somehow manages to reconcile these antagonisms, a real testament to the skill of a Soviet writer who balanced precariously throughout his life between official approval and being banned into obscurity.

Adapted, staged, and designed by artistic director Rick Helweg, the Chicago Actors Ensemble’s The Master and Margarita faithfully captures the depth if not the verve of Bulgakov’s corrosive satire, charting a clean course through a novel filled with digressions and diversions. This production may fail to move us, but it can’t help but impress, with its intelligent homage and occasional visual richness.

By 1939, when the play is set, Bulgakov had fallen afoul of the censors, though he’d once been one of Stalin’s pet writers. He knew The Master and Margarita would never see print while he lived (it was finally “rehabilitated” in 1962). Like his lesser known Heart of a Dog and Black Snow (both of them also adapted by Chicago theaters, as this novel will be by Lookingglass in the spring), The Master and Margarita hid little: Bulgakov’s characters are charged with the author’s sense of intelligent paranoia about the state.

Bulgakov imagines 1939 Moscow invaded by a weird band of pranksters led by a foreign “professor” of black magic, Woland, who’s as capricious as any dictator: he can predict–and engineer–people’s fates. Accompanied by Koroviev, a seven-foot steward (Hilary Mac Austin); Behemoth, an obnoxious black cat (Roberta Rudolph); his sybaritic servant Hella (Laura Hamilton); his henchman Azazello (David “Spike” Thibodeaux); and assorted animated corpses, Woland (Bill Griffin) is of course Satan–spelled S-T-A-L-I-N. The most notable of his pernicious activities is to expose and punish spies and to give midnight balls like witches’ Sabbaths (reminiscent of Stalin’s dangerous all-night one-way parties).

The title characters are Satan’s opposites. Imprisoned as a madman is the unnamed Master (David K. Smith), who’s written but not finished a novel about Pontius Pilate and free will, a work banned for its alleged “Pilatism.” His mistress and muse is Margarita (Margaret Kale), a married woman who imagines herself an enemy to all lies. Invited to a seedy soiree where she’s pronounced queen of the ball, the beautiful Margarita falls under Satan’s spell, as he does hers. Woland/Satan then reunites Margarita with the Master, even helps him finish his novel: in a dramatized scene Yeshua/Christ (Vincent P. San Filippo Jr.) says consolingly that “There is no death,” and Pilate is pardoned and let go. (In effect Bulgakov exorcises his own association with Stalin by putting him, like Pilate, in a larger historical context: each is just a cog in an evil machine.) We’re left to admire the true creation–Margarita’s devotion to the Master, a work of love to weigh against Satan’s mischief.

Putting a dedicated 18-member cast through some tricky paces, Helweg’s 140-minute staging treats the events of Bulgakov’s cryptic novel with a respect that almost embalms them. The action proceeds at a stately pace, with scenes ending as quickly as if a plug had been pulled. Except for Satan’s escapades, like the ribald Ball of the Full Moon, it’s seldom as rambunctious as the novel’s reputation suggests. Easily the best work comes from the women: whether nude or clothed, Kale’s Margarita is as full-blooded as a Renoir portrait, Mac Austin’s imperious Koroviev packs energy into every scene she enters, and Rudolph’s black cat is full of a feline fascination.

Less successful is Smith’s Master; true, the part may be truncated, but Smith has been directed to orate when as the author’s surrogate he should be accessible. Though Griffin’s Woland has more stage presence, he seems oddly subdued for the devil. Edward Pinkowski is flat as the Master’s confidant, institutionalized poet and atheist Bezdomny, and Matt Diehl is merely adequate as the guilt-riddled Pilate. The excellent Jeff Strong is wasted in several thin satirical parts.

The Master and Margarita inaugurates the CAE’s new 60-seat theater, a renovated fourth-floor 1921 meeting room once used by Masons. The renovation took six months and cost $70,000, but oddly it preserves the room’s previous look of stylized decay (and poor acoustics); white blotches intentionally “distress” the walls. The decay may be deliberate, but most theatergoers will probably assume that the room, like Bulgakov’s novel, was unfortunately left unfinished.