In the late 1920s, when Mikhail Bulgakov debuted Molière, or The Cabal of Hypocrites, his theatrical account of the French playwright's post-Tartuffe troubles, the Russian provocateur depended on audiences to recognize their own oppression under Stalin's regime in the 17th-century satirist's struggle against religious hypocrisy and absolutism. Apparently, they did.

The production was banned after only seven performances, and Bulgakov himself finally sent a missive to Stalin appealing for freedom to continue his artistic work — a career that would culminate in his fantastical anti-Soviet masterpiece, The Master and Margarita  — or go abroad. Stalin extended his protection, and the author continued in his homeland before eventually dying of kidney disease.

City Garage's world premiere, Bulgakov/Molière, playwright and producer Charles A. Duncombe's work about this series of events, demands similar leaps of its audience, using the lens of 1930s Russia and France under Louis XIV to refract America's religious right, the tyrannies of public opinion and political correctness and even nonprofit arts management.
The Frédérique Michel–directed play opens on Bulgakov (David E. Frank) dictating the infamous letter and admitting that he has thrown the Master and Margarita manuscript into the stove. That night, the denizens of his aborted novel visit Bulgakov for an unearthly staging of Molière, while the playwright retreats to watch the proceedings from a private box and argue with the players over the role of the artist.

Packed with contemporary, literary and historic allusions and running nearly three hours, this show isn't for the faint of heart. I found myself wishing that the large ensemble's weaker players possessed the acting chops and precise physicality to consistently deliver on Michel's ambitious vision.

But the show is whip-smart and blessed with sumptuous production design, a wicked sense of humor and excellent principal players. As Molière, George Villas captures the artist intent on lampooning buffoons who's here rendered both ridiculous and tragic by his passion for a young woman who (gulp) might also be his daughter.

Alex Pike's Louis XIV provides brilliant comic relief as a divine monarch beset by low polling numbers and right-wing radio pundits. Nathan Dana Aldrich's Professor Woland, the Mephistophelean Master in Bulgakov's tome, doubles as a disturbing minister-cum-interrogator.

City Garage at Bergamot Station Arts Center, 2525 Michigan Ave., Bldg. T1, Santa Monica; Fri.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 5 p.m.; through June 1; no performances May 16-18. (310) 453-9939,

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