`Master' Gets A Masterful Adaptation

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"The Master and Margarita," adapted by theater simple from the novel by Mikhail Bulgakov. Directed by Rachel S. Katz. theater simple, at Brown Bag Theatre, Newmark Center, 1401 Second Ave. Thursdays-Sundays through Nov. 22. 206-784-8647. Note: includes nudity.

With "The Master and Margarita," theater simple has pulled off an ambitious and most admirable adaptation of a difficult tale.

Mikhail Bulgakov's novel, featuring multiple timelines, several interweaving plots and dozens of characters, is ultimately a tale about faith, courage, love and the distinctions (or lack thereof) between good and evil.

With only five actors and the most minimal of sets, the company presents the story in all its surreal, carnivalesque tone, complete with the devil's grand ball, a flying woman, a mental asylum, a burlesque theater. All this and a talking cat, too.

Bulgakov's satire/drama, written secretly during Stalinist rule, then banned and censored for decades, has the devil, in the guise of Woland, a history professor, coming to 1930s Moscow to test the Master, a writer whose faith in himself has been destroyed by the censorship of his writings on Pontius Pilate. Woland entices Margarita, who loves the Master and will sell her soul to be reunited with him, into hosting a grand ball. Juxtaposed with the Master and Margarita's story is that of Pontius Pilate, agonizing over his guilt and cowardice in sending Jesus - here called Yeshua - to the cross.

This is a fantastically and darkly funny, contemplative story in which the various characters and plots twist, wend and unpeel on their way to making the author's points.

Theater simple does a remarkable job re-creating the book's atmosphere, aided in large part by the music of Brent Arnold and the ingeniously simple set by Paul Boehlke. (The set consists almost purely of white screens, moved around by the cast in lickety-split manner.)

Still, in adapting the complex text down to some 100 minutes, the play has lost some of the book's deliberate manipulation of its readers, simplifying and clarifying its messages. The book, for instance, presents Woland as a much more ambiguous figure, especially at the beginning. In this production, with Monique Kleinhans playing a smiling, sly but benign devil, it is immediately apparent that the devil is not the evil figure we are used to.

This is not necessarily a bad thing. The adaptation keeps the story moving at a brisk pace, with all the storylines clear. And most importantly, it makes the story downright accessible: one need not have read the book to understand the play.

Director Rachel S. Katz has done wonders: Not a second of the production is wasted, with cast members changing costumes and shifting scenery in seconds. And not a moment is uninteresting.

Andrew Litzky as the Master and Amy Augustine as Margarita make a touching pair. As a poet/mental patient and especially later, as a talking cat, James Cowan is hilarious.

This is one of those shows that, while it's playing, feeds the eyes, ears and mind. But even better, it's one of those rare plays that you still contemplate days after it's over.