Review: THE MASTER AND MARGARITA by Mikhail Bulgakov. Adapted by Adapted by theater simpletons Amy Augustine, Rachel Katz Carey, James Cowan, Llysa Holland, Monique Kleinhans and Andrew Litzky. Produced by theater simple. Directed by Rachel Katz Carey. Original music by Brent Arnold. Supplemental translation/dramaturgy by Chris Albus. Lighting Design by Jason Meininger. Scenic Design by Paul Boehlke. With Nathan Brockett, Jennifer Faulkner, Llysa Holland, Monique Kleinhans & Teague M Parker. Onstage at Theater Off Jackson from April 5 to 28, 2019.
Sometimes you go to the theater and it’s like revisiting certain chapters in your life, both good and bad. Recently, some theater trips recalled literary and theaterical excursions of the collegiate sort….which in my case would be the Gay Old Days of the 1980s.
Proustian Recherche Moment Number Un: Russian writer Mikhail Bulgakov’s novel THE MASTER AND MARGARITA returns in a stage adaptation by theater simple, (lowercase is deliberate….sigh) who have successfully produced this show in the past. For those of you unaware, The Master and Margarita is one of this big, sprawling Russian/Soviet books that was mostly suppressed for years but still managed to sneak out of Mother Soviet Russia to become very popular among the hippier college lit crowd in the 60s and 70s. It’s a book full of book ideas and symbolism and Christianity and wry commentary on Stalinist doctrines and…there’s a lot going on. Here’s a snapshot via theater simple’s press release:
ABOUT THE SHOW:
theater simple shakes up a philosophical Molotov cocktail with shots of magic realism, vaudeville, the Bible and music in this original distillation of Mikhail Bulgakov’s final masterpiece. 1932: The Devil comes to Moscow, demonic entourage in tow, to learn if Stalin’s politics have actually changed human nature… This story is tangled up in interesting ways with a re-telling of a fateful meeting with Pontius Pilate. Be prepared to witness five actors taking on the challenge of 35+ characters, with onstage musicians playing a brand-new musical score by Brent Arnold.
It’s one of those books that earnest young lit majors think they should try and tackle in their youth and being modestly earnest, I tried and…failed. More than once, I think. I don’t know if it was all the magic realism (which frequently isn’t magical or realistic enough for my ficklish and fussy tastes) or the Christian Origin Story material with Pontius Pilate but it just wasn’t one of the (many) “You Really Should Read This Very Important Book To Be A Well Rounded Student of Literature” tomes that I failed to conquer.
So, other than a vague recollection that the material concerned The Devil bopping around Moscow and being a general nuisance, I went in to theater simple’s production relatively blind. Which is fine. I frequently prefer it that way.
After seeing the production, my takeaway from it all is:
I’m grateful towards theater simple for giving me a pretty concise overview of the book. I need never fear I’m under educated by not having read the book since theater simple filled in all the major stuff I needed to know. Thank you!
But, their cut down, one act version runs about an hour and 45 minutes long which means a couple different things. One, it’s a LOT of material crammed into a relatively short time span. And, conversely, it’s also a VERY long one act…human bodies/minds need breaks and I know my particular body/mind just starts to shut down after sitting in one seat for nearly two hours trying to absorb quite a large amount of Magic Soviet Christian Realism.
Another issue for me was the fact that this excellent ensemble of five actors really needed to be an excellent ensemble of 8 or 10 actors, in my opinion. This is a big story; actually it’s TWO stories since we have the main through line of the Devil rampaging through Moscow but there’s also the “story within the story” of Pontius Pilate back in Ye Olden Jerusalem Times. So, the actors are playing lots of characters in multiple story lines and it gets fatiguing after awhile trying to remember which character each actor is playing.
This production (which is completely the work of theater simple; they adapted the material and have produced this work at venues all over the world including at theater festivals) has lots of things in it I very much liked including some simple but neat theater tricks to create the more magical moments and it’s energetically staged by Rachel Katz Carey and as mentioned before, the cast is very good (Nathan Brockett, Jennifer Faulkner, Llysa Holland, Monique Kleinhans & Teague M Parker).
But, I can’t say I really enjoyed The Master and Margarita due to the odd nature of this adaptation. It felt a bit old fashioned and they really do need to figure out a better length to present it at. For me, it felt like it needed to be a two act show…and a couple extra actors wouldn’t hurt it.
Just my two rubles worth of commentary.
Review: THE DIARY OF ANNE FRANK. Originally adapted for the stage by Frances Goodrich and Albert Hackett. New adaptation by Wendy Kesselman. Produced by Seattle Children’s Theatre and Indiana Repertory Theatre. Directed by Janet Allen. Lighting Design by Andrew D. Smith. Scenic Design by Bill Clarke. Music Composed by and Sound Design by Andew Hopson. Costume Design by Yao Chen. With Miranda Antoinette Troutt, Betsy Schwartz, Ryan Artzberger, Hannah Ruwe, Rob Johansen, Constance Macy, Benjamin Neil McCormack, Mark Goetzinger, Sydney Andrews, Richard Nguyen Sloniker, Conner Neddersen, Ian Bond, James Weidman. Onstage at Seattle Children’s Theatre April 4 to May 19, 2019.
As for my other recent “recherche” moment in the theater, it concerns a very much beloved piece of classic memoir literature….THE DIARY OF ANNE FRANK, the book that everyone has probably encountered at some point in their lives, in one form or the other. For the 32 people who haven’t read/seen a production of it, it’s the diary of a German Jewish girl named Anne Frank who is forced into hiding after the Nazis begin the persecution of the Jews in Germany and countries they had invaded. Anne and her family had fled to Amsterdam from their native Frankfort Germany after the Nazis took power in 1933 and when it looked like the family was in danger, the 4 members of the Frank family plus 4 others, went into hiding in an attic space above the workplace of Otto Frank, Anne’s father.
Anne kept a journal for the two + years she was in hiding (1942-1944) until she and the other 7 people in hiding were captured by the Nazis and sent to concentration camps. Anne perished in 1945, just weeks before her camp was liberated by Allied troops; only her father, Otto survived the war as did her diary which upon publication became a worldwide literary phenomenon, as well as a devastating document of the horrors of the Holocaust. Eventually turned into a successful play by Frances Goodrich and Albert Hackett in 1955, then a major film in 1959, the diary has continued to impact everyone who has read it or watched a production of the material.
(This is “recherche” for me because the last time I saw a production of The Diary of Anne Frank was circa 1984 at the University of Nebraska…it’s been awhile but I vaguely remember it being a solid production. And, I think Seattle area actress Amy Thone was in that specific show, too.)
Currently, “Anne Frank” is on stage at Seattle Children’s Theatre in a co-production with Indiana Repertory Theatre who staged this specific production earlier this year with a slightly different cast and under the direction of Indiana Rep’s artistic director Janet Allen.
I’m going to be…er, frank here and state something a bit shocking:
This is not going to be a good review of this production.
Yes. I’m giving The Diary of Anne Frank a negative review.
Yes. I’m a monster.
All joking aside, this production was very problematic for me, chiefly due to the odd staging by Janet Allen. I don’t get why she places actors in some of the places she puts them. (And, yes, I get we’re supposed to feel awkward and confined in that space. But, sometimes that’s just an excuse for sloppy staging). But, the chief transgression here is the truly bizarre decision to place the entrance to the “Annex”, the attic hiding space for the Franks and their friends, at the front of the stage with actors making their entrances and exits to and fro from the Annex via an aisle in the auditorium meaning we, as the audience, see everyone arriving at the Annex long before they make their presence known to the characters on stage.
WHY would you do that?
The dramatic high point of The Diary of Anne Frank is the terrifying arrival of the Nazis to arrest the Jews hiding in the attic. It’s THE key moment in the play….the banging at the Annex door signifying the arrival of the Nazis. It’s a FAMOUS moment in theater, the moment the audience slightly gasps and the tension is palpable in the theater. But, here, when you, as an audience member can see three actors dressed like Nazis descending the stairs of the aisle towards the stage, that robs the moment of all of its power. It’s really inconceivable why a director (and the scenic designer) would conspire to do such a thing. It just felt…flat and dumb. “Oh…look. The Nazis are starting their descent to take the Franks away….they should be there in a moment or so…almost….and…THEY’RE THERE!” While experiencing these final moments of the play, I didn’t feel devastated by the emotions of that moment as I should have…instead I just felt great anger that the scene was so clumsily and poorly staged.
But, my other chief issue with this production is with…the performance of the actress playing the main character, Anne Frank herself. Miranda Antoinette Troutt is oddly playing Anne like a demented 9 year old with ADHD in the opening scenes…she’s bouncing around like Winnie the Pooh’s Tigger in a way best described as “annoying as hell”. Yes, the text indicates that Anne is supposed to be “high spirited” but here she’s been directed to kilter about the set like a rag doll possessed by the devil. She does eventually calm down, a bit, but the performance is just too over the top…and, that’s ultimately a director’s choice to request that level of performance or to allow it. This isn’t meant as a smack down of Ms Troutt, who is a local actress I’ve admired in other productions, but it can totally be construed as a smack down of Ms Allen’s direction. It’s off putting and a ridiculous “modern” take on the character.
There were other performances I didn’t totally enjoy either and some of these could also be casting issues. I didn’t really “get” the casting of Hannah Ruwe as older sister Margot….both the performance and the way the actress was presented, made her seem like Anne’s younger sister. (And, to be fair, poor Margot is rather a weak role in “Anne Frank”; she’s not given much to do other than be noble yet sickly.) Ryan Artzberger’s Otto Frank was so underplayed that the character seemed to fade away despite the fact Otto anchors the play as the sole survivor and is the final voice to be heard at the play’s conclusion. It was a low powered take on a role that needs to firmly center the material.
The chief acting stand outs would have to be Constance Macy’s Mrs. Van Daan, the matriarch of the other family living in the Annex. Mrs. Van Daan is a showier role; she’s a bit loud and abrasive and in the past, some actors have had a tendency to ham up this role, but Ms Macy is just terrific here. It’s a nicely understated performance of a larger than life woman.
I also admired Benjamin Neil McCormack as her son Peter Van Daan, the teen aged “love interest” for Anne who also gave a lovely nuanced performance. And, Mark Goetzinger as Mr. Drussel the older dentist residing in the Annex, was appropriately cross and fussy but believably so. Drussel is another character that sometimes results in scene chewing, but Mr. Goetzinger nicely grounds his Drussel. He feels organic and real.
I will also note this is a recent-ish version of the Goodrich/Hackett play adapted by playwright Wendy Kesselman to include more “adult” material from the diary, including Anne musing on her body and touching herself, as well as other frank sexual thoughts by Anne. To be honest, the added sex stuff felt…added on. It didn’t blend into the original material very well and felt plunked and like it was trying too hard to be “modern”.
So, yes. I am the monster to give this specific production of The Diary of Anne Frank a negative review. It’s still a gripping and important piece of drama but Janet Allen’s misguided direction derails the power and the pain and the beautiful urgency of Anne Frank’s story.