This Imaginative Take on a Russian Classic Is a Weird Story, Well-Told

Dacha Theatre’s engaging adaptation of the fantastical Russian novel is swifter than its run time. The Master and Margarita runs through April 13 at Seattle’s 12th Avenue Arts.  


It’s a biting satire; a sociopolitical commentary; a riff on classical literature; an allegory; an autobiography; a fantasy; a work of magical realism. The Master and Margarita, one of the very few published works by Russian author Mikhail Bulgakov (posthumously, 27 years after the author’s death) is all of these, and none of them. 

Too controversial to ever be published in his lifetime, the novel would likely never have seen the light of day if not for the efforts of Bulgakov’s devoted wife, Elena. It became a hugely significant work after his death, influencing an eclectic array of artists ranging from musicians Mick Jagger and Pearl Jam to visual artist H.R. Giger to fellow novelist Salman Rushdie and many more. Dacha Theatre’s “tradaptation” (its portmanteau of “translation” and “adaptation”), from Dacha co-founder and co-Artistic Director Mike Lion, is a sprawling, slapstick-y tour de force, with an ensemble that’s both great and game, and a leading lady that cuts through each scene like a knife. I may have lost the plot every now and again, but man, was I having a great time regardless.

How to even begin to get my arms around the show’s plot? Let’s go broad strokes: the devil came down to Moscow, looking for … well, more than just a few souls to steal. There are essentially three plots going on simultaneously, the threads of which eventually start to combine as the action moves forward. First, the devil (played by Cody Smith) and his hellish crew have come to take a stroll through Stalinist Russia, tempting some, rewarding others, and always sowing chaos. 

Meanwhile, we’re taken back to biblical times as we see the trial of Yeshua Ha-Nostri (or, if you prefer, Jesus of Nazareth, played by Rachael Uyeno) by Roman procurator Pontius Pilate (Jen Faulkner), which eventually is revealed to be the plot of a novel by a mentally ill writer known only as The Master (Ben Symons). The Master’s lover, Margarita (Ksenia Boisvert), still madly in love and searching for The Master who’s been committed after failing to publish his novel, makes a Faustian bargain with the devil to find him and for the two to find some kind of soft ending. In the midst of this there’s a beheading, a hellishly big cat (sporting a snazzy bow tie), witches, magic, and the crucifixion of Christ (timely, given the show’s Good Friday opening night). 

Got all that? No worries. Lion, pulling off a hat trick by also directing the play, keeps the action careening forward at such a breakneck pace that even if you miss a plot point or two, you’ll still be captivated by the show’s blend of live action, puppetry, and projections, and the surprisingly relevant political parallels to our current era, both overseas and here at home.

Both of the titular actors are lovely — Symons’ Master pairs a hangdog appeal with devastatingly good comedic timing — but Boisvert, with her sharp features and dancer’s grace, is magnetic in every scene, moving smoothly from giddy love to desperation to orgasmic abandon without missing a step. I enjoyed the show before her character arrived, but once she came on the scene? That’s when it really started cooking with gas.

‘The Master and Margarita’ runs at 12th Avenue Arts through 4/13. Rehearsal photo courtesy of Dacha Theatre.

The rest of the cast are no slouches, however, and it’s hard to pick the standouts. As the devil (going by “Professor Woland” in the novel), Smith juggles a number of accents convincingly, all with an air of genteel menace that was more effective than any bluster could be. Angela M. Thomas and Adele Lim as his MC and muscle, respectively, have some lovely moments; Lim’s exasperation in conveying the devil’s offer of tit-for-tat aid to Margarita had the audience in stitches, while Thomas is regal and unsettling from scene to scene. Faulkner sells Pilate’s quiet authority and wry humor as well as the character’s doubt and confusion in the face of Yeshua’s unsettling new philosophies. Emily Huntingford brings huge energy to her dual roles as the show’s Announcer (a sort of walking collection of footnotes to the action) and as Margarita’s maid, who ends up joining her mistress on her walk on the wild side. 

The play’s production design is quite clever. Taking advantage of 12th Avenue Arts’ expansive space, scenic designer Robin Macartney’s stage — a series of platforms — is crisscrossed with lines of hanging laundry, sheets on which location notes, shadow puppetry (by Olivia Dagley and Hannah Votel), and other action are projected. Several trap doors make for effectively hellish exits and entrances. In a fantastically effective piece of puppetry, Behemoth the Cat (performed primarily by Nolan Spencer) makes appearances Cheshire Cat-style, in bits and pieces: sometimes simply his giant red eyes, held over Spencer’s head; sometimes his chomping jaws; sometimes his massive paws curling out from behind the curtains. 

Cards on the table, the show’s run time had me a little apprehensive. But my attention never wandered; and even when I wasn’t 100% clear on where we were headed, I was enjoying the hell out of the ride. Go catch this wildly imaginative adaptation of an almost-lost classic. 

The Master and Margarita runs through 4/13 at 12th Avenue Arts on Capitol Hill in Seattle. Tickets are $3-$66 (pay-what-you-choose tickets offered for all) here. Accessibility notes: restrooms are multi-stall; there is one single-stall, gender-neutral, accessible restroom near the theatre entrance. Theatre and common areas are wheelchair accessible.

Run time: 2 hours 45 minutes, with intermission. 

Jill Farrington Sweeney is a Texas ex-pat getting to know the Seattle-area arts scene, and is perpetually on the hunt for good Mexican food. Her writing has appeared on TheaterJones, Onstage NTX, and NWTheatre.