The Master and Margarita, Or, The Devil Comes to Moscow

By Jean-Claude Van Itallie, based on the novel by Mikhail Bulgakov; Directed by Aleksey Burago
Produced by the Russian Arts Theater and Studio

Off Off Broadway, Play 
Runs through 9.9.17
The West End Theater, 263 West 86th Street

by Asya Danilova on 8.29.17

MasterAndMargaritaThe cast  of The Master and Margarita, Or, The Devil Comes to Moscow. Photo by Leon Joosen.


BOTTOM LINE: In this adaptation of a classic Russian novel, some actors shine, some of the director’s choices make you gasp, but the scenic design requires some editing.    

Welcome to Moscow in the 1930s, where on a hot spring day, Satan (Roman Freud) himself appears, heedless of the atheistic views of the Communist citizenry. He poses as "Woland," a professor of black magic, and engages in enthusiastic theological debate with the chair of the Literary Union, Berlioz (Tyree Giroux) and a boyish poet, Ivan Homeless (Conor Andrew Hall). So begins the adaptation (by Jean-Claude Van Itallie) of Mikhail Bulgakov’s novel The Master and Margarita, produced by the Russian Arts Theater and Studio.

Partly a satire on Soviet society, part love story and part phantasmagoria, Master and Margarita has three interwoven plotlines and an international cast of eighteen, some of whom play multiple roles. The first act consists mostly of the debauchery of Woland and his entourage: a cat named Behemoth (Charles Anderson, dressed in a latex feline suit), bendy Azazello (Michael Dona), interpreter Koroviev (Ariel Polanko in freakishly high platform shoes), and a witch, Hella (Luisa Menzen in a “sexy maid” outfit). To the audience’s delight, those five almost never leave the stage, observing the humans from up on ladders or, more often, blending in with the crowd and spreading havoc and disaster for sheer amusement.

Another plotline takes us to Jerusalem and introduces us to the procurator of Judea, Pontius Pilate (Brandon DeSpain), and Yeshua Ha-Notsri (Hazen Cuyler), aka Jesus Christ. In his conversation with Berlioz and Homeless, Woland claims to be an eyewitness to Christ’s trial. Incidentally, this very same historical episode is the core of a novel by Master (Tom Schubert), a failed writer. When his book was rejected by the Soviet literary bureaucracy, he ended up in a mental institution, where we, and the poet, Homeless, meet him in the second act.

As Master tells his story, he moves the furniture and transforms a corner of the stage into his little basement apartment, where he was once happy with his secret wife, Margarita Nikolaevna (Di Zhu). There are a lot of instances of clever staging in Master and Margarita, which is especially handy when the setting can change within a sentence. Three benches make a streetcar, a park, a restaurant and many other locations, allowing for fast transitions and vivid mise-en-scene. A streetcar is created by the entire cast making tram-like noises; a restaurant scene opens with a parody of da Vinci’s Last Supper, with Woland taking the place of Christ and members of the Literary Union and his gang assembled around him.

Dynamic and often stuffed with metaphors, the staging is a credit to director Aleksey Burago, though not all the actors effortlessly make the director’s vision their own. Fiery Zhu, portraying Margarita, and the entirety of Woland’s gang make a beautiful micro-ensemble. However, the complicated plot, the multitude of characters, and the very physical performances call for a clean design; set designer Leon Joosen unfortunately misses the mark. The scenery requires pruning, as now it is suffocating with an abundance of fake greenery, icons obscured by a plastic sheet on the ceiling, and random little drawings on the benches. Still, I commend the boldness of the director’s choices; the vital, exuberant performances; and the production's risky originality, striving to give a charge to Bulgakov’s every line.     

(The Master and Margarita, Or, The Devil Comes to Moscow plays at the West End Theater at the Church of St. Andrew and St. Paul, 263 West 86th Street, through September 9th, 2017. The running time is 2 hours and 30 minutes with an intermission. Performances are Tuesday through Saturday at 8 and Sunday at 2 and 8. Tickets are $25 and are available at

The Master and Margarita, Or, The Devil Comes to Moscow
 is by Jean-Claude Van Itallie, adapted from the novel by Mikhail Bulgakov. Directed by Aleksey Burago. Set Design is by Leon Joosen. Choreography by Georgina Bates. Stage Manager is Benjamin Vigil.

The cast is Charles Anderson, Reanna Armellino, Hazen Cuyler, Brandon DeSpain, Michael Dona, James Fordyce, Roman Freud, Tyree Giroux, Conor Andrew Hall, Keegan McDonald, Luisa Menzen, Ariel Polanco, Tom Schubert, Spencer Scott, Shadrach A. Stanleigh, Ingrid Wheatley, Kseniya Yershova, and Di Zhu.