Led through a progression of rooms—passages between them with flashing lights, bureaucratic apologies and evidence of some urban accident—into a devilish cabaret, devilishly good fun, where gypsies, eccentrics, a big cat on two legs and others sing and dance, the spectators are finally pulled into another room, a party, the guest of honor on a trapeze, all invited to kiss her knee . . .
And this is just the chorus that swirls around the real story, The Master and Margarita, Mikhail Bulgakov’s seductive tale of 1938 (though buried for a quarter century) about a great writer, lolling in a bathtub, spurned by secular censors, extemporizing as Pontius Pilate—so speaking of the Garden of Gethsemene and the lonely passion of another master there—provoking the devil himself and his wild retinue to descend on the unbelieving city to spread anarchy around.
Four Larks, a nicely punning monicker for a committed little theater company that divides its time between the Bay Area and Melbourne, is putting on (I say it advisedly) a diverting show that proves their musical, their choral and cabaret sensibilities are very strong indeed. They also know how—and when—to have a good time, almost disguising their hard work in the process.
Four Larks has focused on the love story of the great writer and his lady, but it’s the slightly out-of-focus carrying on by the company around the more romantic vignettes that give the show its giddiness and flavor. But the staged wildness, with a solid musical spine, becomes a kind of dialectic whereby the interplay of the cabaret/wild party with the dramatic tableaux give the troupe the chance to creatively use the whole space, every dizzying angle, entrance and exit, of Ghost Town Gallery in West Oakland, dragging a pleasantly puzzled yet willing audience along with it.
Bulgakov was the brilliant and witty odd man out in the fantastic theater scene of post-revolutionary Russia. A disciple of Moliere, he first got on Stanislavsky’s wrong side (satirizing that old master and his dramatic mood swings in Black Snow), then incurred the displeasure of the Comintern’s toadies, with tragic effect. The Master and Margarita might be seen as his fairytale escape from such woes, summoning up the devil to beat back the ferocious functionaries of a people’s paradise gone awry. (As William Blake put it, “As a new heaven is begun ... the Eternal Hell revives.”
A piquant pleasure, at a moment in history—or post-history, if that’s what they’re still selling—to go through the hoops of loneliness, the meatgrinder of social obloquy, like this, with a spirit of fun.
Jesse Rasmussen put together the script and lyrics and directed, with assistance “devising” by Mat Sweeney (who directed the music and sang with Ellen Warkentine), Sebastian Peters-Lazaro and Alessandro Rumie, who also did the choreography, set and murals. Chloe Greaves, visiting from Melbourne, designed costume and lights and is running the boards. Almost everyone doubles up, some acting and on instruments, among them Em Gift, Susannah Freedman, Max Baumgarten, Nathan Greene, Caitlin Valentine, Troy Delaney, Danny Echevarria, Lidsay Cooper, Matthew Fleming, Mallory Gross and Stephanie Butterworth. It’s a bright, young troupe, finding their way instead of dutifully marching down the well-worn highways of one style or another. The Master and Margarita comes closer to vaudeville, burlesque, Commedia in spirit than many more polished “nouveau” presentations.
THE MASTER AND MARGARITA
Presented by Four Larks at 8 p.m. July 16-19 at Ghost Town Gallery, 2519 San Pablo Ave. Oakland. $10-$15. Phone or text: 967-0426. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org. Website: www.fourlarkstheatre.com.