I spilled out of The Master & Margarita drunk on what I'd seen. A comic, wicked, sensual, absurd and moral adaptation of Mikhail Bulgakov's all-that-times-a-thousand novel about the devil coming to Soviet Moscow, this UMKC production bursts with marvels. A short list: luminous moonscapes, women bewitched into flight, the devil's own magic show, a cat in a gunfight, the anguish of Pontius Pilate, and many beheadings (comic and not).
There's a Stalinist pogrom and an erotic broomstick flight. There's Christ on Calvrary and Satan in a Soviet one-bedroom apartment -- attended, happily enough, by a bizarre retinue of a talking cat, a woman soldier and a gorgeous near nudist, all of whom drape about him like the Revolution around Prince.
Director Barry Kyle crafts those marvels. As happens each year when he lands in town to marshal the best from the UMKC Theatre Department, he demonstrates rare ambition and daring but also a clarity of purpose and the ability to get the thousand component parts of a show humming along as one. When he floods the stage with the revelers of a satanic ball, as he does in The Master & Margarita, or he floods the stage with rainwater, as he did in The Cure at Troy, the marvel never strikes as mere flourish. Rather, each marvel feels the realization of all that must happen in this story and on this stage.
Bulgakov wrote under the scrutiny of aparatchiks, and The Master & Margarita mocks totalitarianism. This adaptation -- a world premiere by RSC writer in residence Ron Hutchinson -- cuts great swaths of Bulgakov's novel and emphasizes the horrors of Stalinism in ways that Bulgakov couldn't dare. Still, it feels whole, even urgent, especially as it ties a tragic love story into, of all things, the tale of Pilate condemning Christ.
Kyle is an honorary associate director with the Royal Shakespeare Company. Beyond the ambitions, you can see it in the way his actors move: always with force and meaning. Under his watch, standout performers like Patrick Du Laney (playing Woland, the cloven-heeled devil figure) or Anna Safar (as a pipsqueak thug serving Woland) come across with greater authority than ever.
Du Laney especially is in command. His Woland might not be as monstrous as his Tartuffe was last fall, but here he fixes his face in an expression of cold sternness that draws us even when the stage teems with performers. Zachary M. Andrews is impressively anguished as the Master, an author who destroyed a controversial book rather than face the wrath of the state, and Rachel Hirshorn builds comic anxiety into glittering fits.
Sometimes the ensemble work is ragged. Fortunately, there's always another inventive costume (from Megan Turek and Lindsay W. Davis) or burst of inspired movement to relish. Some projected images don't run as smoothly as they should, and I was occasionally jolted by some thudding from the wings. No matter. If you skip The Master & Margarita, you're not just missing a show with some marvels. You're letting a dream go undreamed.
The show's at 7:30 tonight and Saturday and 2 p.m. Sunday at the Spencer Theatre in the UMKC Performing Arts Center, 4949 Cherry. Tickets cost $15.