The Culture of Resonance

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This is Anthony Byrnes Opening the Curtain on LA theater for KCRW.

A little over a decade ago a hot, young LA theater company, Zoo District, did an adaptation of Mikhail Bulgakov's The Master and Margarita. The show was a huge hit, won awards, extended several times - the whole deal. The secret was they'd tapped into an audience that already revered the novel: Russian emigres. Either by accident or design, depending on who you talk to, Zoo District found themselves retelling a literary classic that this community had grown up cherishing. The resonance of the play for them was far deeper than simply the words on the page: these words had a history, a culture around them. This was a subversive tale that had given voice to the struggles under Stalin and beyond.

Fast forward to today, playwright and critic Steven Leigh Morris has updated the Russian classic for City Garage Theatre under the title Moskva.

Mr. Morris' "Moskva" keeps the bulk of Bulgakov intact but changes the target of disdain from Stalin's regime to the tyranny of Putin and the current crop of oligarchs.

I don't think I'm doing the play a disservice to say that to enter into it you need to simultaneously jump into two cultures: first, the story and symbolism of Bulgakov's novel and then more than a passing knowledge of mother Russia's current political landscape.

Let's start with the plot. I'd love to give you a quick summary but it's not that kind of play. Suffice it to say the story ranges from a burned and stolen manuscript to a mysterious man who cavorts with a naked witch and a cat on stilts to Satan's ball and the promise of becoming a naked queen of the night to a dialogue between Jesus and Pontius Pilate. And that's just a little more than act one!

Now, if you're familiar with the original these gymnastics could be thrilling. If you're not - forgive yourself for feeling just a bit overwhelmed.

The politics are almost as dense. Most of the audience will appreciate the Putin as Stalin comparisons but that's just the tip of the iceberg. Mr. Morris is making a deep dive into the repression and corruption. Some of his most passionate writing surrounds the poisoning of the Russian journalist Anna Politkovskaya. If the name rings a bell for you, it's a powerful contemporary argument but if it doesn't . . . well it's just another foreign name.

It's telling that the play finds it's grounding in Act Two with the scene between Jesus and Pontius Pilate. Suddenly the antic pace abates, the play takes a deep breath: here are two characters we know, with a back story we've heard so we can appreciate Bulgakov's, and by extension Mr. Morris', take on the story. It's profound.

I have a suspicion that if I were more steeped in the original text and the Russia of the last several decades, I would be equally moved by the rest of the play. If you've got the keys to those kingdoms this play will speak to you. If you don't, buckle up: it's a long and crazy ride.

Moskva plays at City Garage in Santa Monica through December 15.

This is Anthony Byrnes Opening the Curtain on LA theater for KCRW.

Running time: 2 hours and 15 minutes with an intermission.

Banner image: Justin Davanzo, Kristina Drager, Jeffrey Gardner in Moskva. Photo: Paul M. Rubenstein