Steven Leigh Morris, L.A. Weekly's own head theater critic, has brought a Russian literary masterpiece — Mikhail Bulgakov's The Master and Margarita — to Santa Monica with his stage adaptation, Moskva. Bulgakov's novel, written during the darkest period of Stalin's regime, is a satire of Soviet life, woven around a visit by the Devil to the fervently atheistic Soviet Union. Produced by City Garage at Bergamot Station, Moskva is a surreal and ambitious production, as any adaptation of Bulgakov's wild and complex novel must be.
We spoke with Steven about the play and his life as a critic and playwright. Here are excerpts from our conversation:
I'm very glad to speak with you about Moskva. I studied acting at the Moscow Art Theatre at the tail end of Yeltsin's presidency, and The Master and Margarita is my favorite novel.
Oh, really! So you're a Russophile, too.
Well, then, we'll have a lot to talk about.
First I'd like to know: When did you first read the novel The Master and Margarita ?
I first read it in the mid 1980s when I was in college, and it always stuck with me. I've read it countless times since.
And what is your relationship to Moscow and/or Russia?
I've been in love with Russian literature since young adulthood. When I was at UCLA doing grad work as a playwright, I headed over to the Slavic lit department and took up every class I could find. In the '90s I was invited to be a playwright in residence at [the theater company] Spartacus Square. Also, my ex-wife is Russian, so for those two reasons, I visited Moscow probably at least a month out of every year for 12 to 13 years.
Over that time, I saw a lot of changes. I saw Gorbachev trying to hold down Yeltsin, pro-Western forces that were rising in popularity. Usually around the holidays, you watch the president give his New Year's address, and 1991 was really interesting, with all the pro-Western romance going on there. [Recordings of] Elton John and Cyndi Lauper played in the parks. Russians were totally obsessed with American culture then.
The artistic director of Spartacus Square once told me, “It is not in our genetics to be a democracy.” Over the years, I've seen the truth of that statement, particularly with the shenanigans to get Putin back into power, and the return of secrecy and the influence of spy organizations.
So, I'm fascinated by Russia, and in some ways, I see America and our ways refracted through that frame. We're supposed to be opposites, but sometimes it seems that, if we're not careful, we'll turn into the same country. It's a little like the story of Romeo and Juliet, about two opposites that fall in love, that both love and hate each other, and that ultimately become the same.
What about The Master and Margarita made you want to bring it to the stage?
First, it seemed absolutely impossible to produce — I was attracted to the challenge of it. The novel is fantastic and fantastical, full of strange and surreal elements, much of which I wasn't sure could be staged. Ultimately, I wrote what I would want to see. I wrote the surreal elements. I'm certainly not the first to adapt The Master and Margarita to the stage, but there haven't been many others. The Zoo District [the now-defunct downtown L.A. theater company] did it about 10 years ago, and I admired that production. It seemed so difficult to do. My version has 65 characters in it.
Do you view your version as a straight adaptation?
No. Bulgakov was writing about oppression under Stalin. My original adaptation updated the story to Gorbachev's era, but as I reworked it, I updated it further, to address some of the anxieties of Putin's time. Essentially, I feel that Russia is sliding backward from the Gorbachev and Yeltsin eras. The Putin era is one of oppression not seen since Stalin. However, Putin's Russia is nowhere near as violently oppressive. His oppressions may be similar in style but not in scale. And, of course, Putin's transgressions against civil rights are much, much worse than what we have here in America. I would rationalize this adaptation of being a warning about America and our tendencies to ignore our constitutional principles. We're at risk of allowing the slippage of civil liberties and the crushing of freedom of the press.
Did you write this play for an audience familiar with The Master and Margarita?
My hope was that it would speak to an audience that might not be very familiar with the novel or with Russia. That said, the play's locations, the names and the historical details are very Russian. But my intention was that it should not make a difference whether you've read the book or are familiar with Russian history or culture.
What are the differences or similarities you have observed between theater in Moscow and theater in Los Angeles?
The difference can really be seen by looking at the listings in the Moscow Times compared to L.A. Weekly. In L.A. Weekly, you'll have the name of the play followed by “Joe Schmo's drama about …” In the Moscow Times, it'll say, “an adaptation of the writer's piece by Director So-and-So. There, the focus is on the director. Here, the focus is on the writer.
Another difference is the Russians' interest in the way a theatrical work looks on stage. Their word for performance is “spektakle,” which sort of says it all. It's very visual. Meanwhile, we place more primacy on the text, and then we look at how the text might be interpreted.
But theater in Moscow is starting to look more and more like theater in Los Angeles, for economic reasons. Russian theater has traditionally been heavily subsidized by the state, and was performed in these grand palaces, but the money started trickling out. With the lack of subsidies, companies started renting rooms or small theaters that only hold 100 people. That's where I started to see similarities. It has as much to do with economics as much as culture.
What is your relationship to City Garage?
I originally workshopped this play with the Actors' Gang, and the artistic director of City Garage, Frédérique Michel, had seen that version. I've always admired this company, and since I'm a critic, it has become increasingly public knowledge that I like what they do. So they approached me saying they wanted to do a Bulgakov festival, and they thought this would be good.
In the staging of Satan's ball just before intermission, there is a lot of nudity, both male and female. Was that written into the script, or did that come from Frédérique Michel?
The staging of the ball, as well as the rest of the play, came entirely from the director.
Of course, I had some stage directions, but they were minimal. When we decided to partner on the production of my play, we worked together on the text, to tighten it up, then I turned over the text to them, and she ignored all stage directions. Frédérique works in a European style, in that once the play is written, the director takes over. I didn't attend rehearsals — I only came in after a few weeks, just checking in, and I was pretty delighted with what I saw. The style is entirely hers. I knew, that in the hands of Frédérique, it would not be kitchen-sink realism. Which, from the text alone, it could be. It could be.
What are the ethical rules of working with a company that you've been known to critique?
Well, I can't write about it till long after it closes. To review any of their shows for a long while would be crossing over a line. There's a critic/creator divide here that has to be honored. I can't formally write reviews about them after this play closes, and assuming we don't have any more discussions of collaboration, for at least one year. In this case, though, I would wait at least twice that.
What is the experience of having your creative work critiqued?
I've always gotten the sense that I've been treated fairly. The criticism [of] my work has not been overly hostile, or particularly ingratiating. In a way, people have spoken whatever was on their minds, which is what I would hope for.
What is it like to read reviews of your work?
It is odd. Sometimes I would get aggravated and then it would wear off. The most annoying thing is when your intent has been misunderstood, not getting what you are trying to do. I teach theater criticism at Cal Poly Pomona, and I always say that a critic's first task is to figure out what the creator is trying to do, and you'd better get that right. Your core responsibility as a critic is to figure out what the creator's endeavor is and respect that endeavor. But as a creator, sometimes you just have to stop reading reviews. It can make you crazy.
Moskva runs at City Garage at Bergamot Station in Santa Monica, Fridays and Saturdays at 8 p.m. and Sundays at 4 p.m. through Dec. 15.
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