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The Devil Takes West Oakland

July 17, 2009

The Ghost Town Gallery isn't in a particularly lovely part of Oakland. The streets are rife with swirling trash, windows are boarded up and there are prostitution and drug warnings posted on almost every corner.

It is, however, the perfect neighborhood in which to stage a theatrical adaptation of The Master and Margarita, Mikhail Bulgakov's great 1930s satirical novel in which the Devil runs rampage around a destitute and corrupt city.

Four Larks Theatre Company, a scrappy and exceedingly talented young troupe with one cloven hoof in the Bay Area and other in Melbourne Australia, is making black magic in the Gallery his week with its take on Bulgakov's chef d'oeuvre. The walk-through production is an immersive experience in three acts which combines eerily beautiful live music and spirited writing and acting with a visual art-inflected mise-en-scene that looks like something out of a 1980s New Romantic pop group video.

I have witnessed a number of adaptations of The Master and Margarita before. It's easy to see why theatre companies are so attracted to the work. With its black comedy and opportunities for dazzling theatrics (a guy gets his head chopped off in a freak accident involving a tram; characters fly; the Devil puts on the Party of the Century) the novel begs to be staged. But very few of these theatrical adaptations work because the adaptors try to cram too much of the novel into the play. Another related problem is figuring out what to do with Bulgakov's heavy, incense-laden secondary plot, which deals with the contents of The Master's Biblical book about Pontius Pilate. This plot just isn't as sexy as the story about the Devilish Woland and his band of renegade satyrs causing havoc in Moscow.

The artfulness of Four Larks production lies partly in the fact that the company doesn't attempt to put Bulgakov's entire novel on stage. The adaptation focuses mostly on the love story between the two titular characters and on the attitude and pluck of Woland and his entourage. The emphasis on character brings the story to life. From Nathan Greene's sprightly feline Behemoth to Max Baumgarten's serious, matinee idol-like Master, each actor imbues his character with a strong sense of purpose without upsetting the carefully balanced sense of ensemble.

Another reason for the success of the production is the clever conceit of doubling the characters of Pontius Pilate and Jesus with The Master and Margarita. This is not only economical from a casting perspective but also brings a whole new layer of meaning to the relationship between the central couple and helps to tie the two plots more closely together.

Directed and scripted by Jesse Rasmussen and devised by Rasmussen, Mat Sweeney, Sebastian Peters-Lazaro and Alessandro Rumie, Four Larks' production certainly has its sticking points. The ball scene, which should be the flamboyant centerpiece of the entire work, loses power, focus and all sense of story line owing to the fact that it's made to double up as a sort of intermission. The actors hand out eye masks to the audience members, shoo us into a room and suggest that we buy a drink and have some fun. The cast members themselves wander around in heavily powdered faces and flea market Gothic drag ad libbing in character. Susannah Freedman, as Margarita, sits above the party room on a swing in a cabaret girl dress, swigging red wine out of a giant goblet. At one point, Ern Gift's larger-than-life Woland stands astride the bar and makes a bit of a speech. As Woland's saucy and underdressed maid, Hella, Caitlin Valentine half-heartedly attempts to engage audience members in a waltz. Lindsey Cooper, as Frieda, sings a sad little song through which the other characters declare their boredom and ask her to shut up. It's all very intriguing and offbeat, but the conceit neither ultimately works as scene nor intermission.

However, this Master and Margarita is, generally speaking, such a box of fairy tale wonders that it's impossible not to leave the theatre smiling. West Oakland feels like less of a ghost town upon exiting Ghost Town Gallery.

Four Larks Theatre Company's production of The Master and Margarita plays at Ghost Town Gallery, 2519 San Pablo Avenue, Oakland. Tickets cost $10-$15. Call 510 967 0426 or email info@fourlarkstheatre.com to reserve tickets.

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