The surest way to make heroes out of artists is to ban and kill them. The surest way to crush their spirits is to ignore them. Joseph Stalin tried a bit of both.

It’s curious to see the almost simultaneous arrival on local stages of two different theater projects about Stalin. Nancy Keystone‘s The Akhmatova Project (presented by Critical Mass at the Actors’ Gang Theater) actually counts Stalin among its characters. Not so Mikhail Bulgakov‘s novel The Master and Margarita nor Richard Helweg and Michael Franco’s mostly faithful stage adaptation of it for Zoo District, though Stalin‘s repressive spirit seeps through nonetheless. Indeed, it’s impossible to set a play in 1930s Russia and not have Stalin emerge as the central character, whether or not he actually materializes onstage. His personality and policies hung over the Soviet Union in that decade in much the same way his face hung from banner after banner over Moscow‘s Tverskaya Boulevard. Perhaps unjustly overshadowed by Hitler in terms of setting the modern standard for evil, Stalin was responsible for the murders of at least 20 million of his own countrymen. In his youth, he had planned to become a priest; he also loved musical theater (excepting, notably, Shostakovich’s Lady Macbeth of Minsk). Which may reveal something about both piety and sentimentality, or at least what happens when those qualities become sufficiently depraved.

Both projects have been staged by theater companies who are using Mr. Stalin as a vehicle to explore the role of artists in general and, by extension, the reasons for making serious art in L.A.‘s haven of commerce. Underscoring a disturbing symbiosis between political oppression and artistic vitality, they lend an almost perverse nostalgia to their reflections on Russia’s harrowed past.

The KGB‘s trademark predawn knock at the door provides a kind of pulse for The Akhmatova Project, developed by Keystone in collaboration with her 12-member ensemble (portraying nearly 40 characters) as a choreographed recital tracking the plight of poet Anna Akhmatova (Miranda Viscoli as the girl, Valerie Spencer as the woman) and her circle of mostly outcast artists.

The dance enlarges upon two major motifs. First, there’s the sheer reach of Stalin‘s sadism — how, for example, he lashed out at Akhmatova by repeatedly sentencing her only son, Lev (Joseph Grimm), to Siberian labor camps. Second is the fact that, in the Soviet Union, poets could be as influential, and disruptive, as today’s rock stars. That Stalin would sentence Osip Mandelstam (John Prosky) to hard labor for one poem is testament not only to Stalin‘s paranoia and vindictiveness, but also to the high regard in which he held poetry. One line from the play — ”There’s no place where more people are killed for [poetry]“ — bespeaks a circumstance of history that many of our more serious artists might well envy.

The rest is largely a Who‘s Who of Soviet lit, a roster of talent that includes Vladimir Mayakovsky (Christopher Kelley), Boris Pasternak (Eric Marx), Aleksander Blok (Russell Edge), Sir Isaiah Berlin (Grimm again) and even the ghost of Aleksandr Pushkin (Joe Palmiotti), with additional poetry and text by Joseph Brodsky, Nikolai Bukharin and Keystone.

The Akhmatova Project’s literary ballet plays out on a mostly bare wooden stage, a feast of visual tableaux and symbols: Young Akhmatova slips out of a white dress to don the black dress of her maturity. Meanwhile, in a crescendo of terror and doom, most of her colleagues either are swept away or cut their losses and run to Paris. Mayakovsky, favored by Stalin, commits suicide. A scene depicting the march of citizens to the Soviet anthem, the Red Flag unfurling around them, ignites feelings of both inspiration and alarm. A firing squad guns down an artist to the strains of Mozart‘s Requiem.

The play’s points are driven home not so much by the abundant poetry in the text as by Keystone‘s staging, juxtaposed against Randy Tico’s haunting sound design and original music. The tone is like a sledgehammer pounding an anvil. When sparks fly, they are the words of the poems, often spoken in Russian by Natasha Basley. The Akhmatova Project is a labor of devotion whose integrity resonates from the stage. Keystone has been developing the piece over many years. (It premiered in ASK Theater Projects‘ 1998 Common Ground Festival.) Diligently researched, it is nonetheless an emotional cry, a tone poem, an ode to the vigor of the crafted word, and to the people who craft it.

Back in the ’30s, Stalin assigned Mikhail Bulgakov to work at the Moscow Art Theater, then forbade most of his plays from being produced. The Master and Margarita — Bulgakov‘s last novel, a Faustian epic that didn’t appear in print until the late ‘60s — was written in the shadow of this torment. Part love story, part social satire and part historical fantasia, it blends three different stories. One involves a parody of Russian literary society and the futile attempts of an impoverished novelist, the Master (Steven Sennett), to publish a treatise on the relationship between Christ and Pontius Pilate (Joe Seely and Bruno Oliver, respectively) with the devoted help of his mistress, Margarita (Kelly Lynn Doherty). The second concerns the devil (Ben Davis) and his entourage paying a visit to Moscow, largely for their own amusement. The third takes us to Jerusalem at the time of the Crucifixion.

The intersections of these stories are as dazzling as they are unwieldy. Given that the novel is a masterpiece, it’s not surprising that Helweg and Franco‘s very respectful adaptation, staged by Loren Rubin, is something of a reduction. The biblical scenes tend to fare poorly. Gone is Jerusalem’s blistering heat; and Pilate‘s agonizing headaches, which so affect his judgment in the novel, are here glossed over. Gone also is much of Bulgakov’s wry humor in these scenes. The love story, however, is still beautiful, and the demonic saga, in particular, contains much mordant, gothic wit. The piece never bores — a remarkable accomplishment, given the scale of the enterprise — thanks as much to Jeff Bek‘s live musical accompaniment as to the actors’ intelligence and the director‘s swift pacing.

Los Angeles has always represented a challenge to writers. In this sunny clime, the literary gifts of F. Scott Fitzgerald, Bertolt Brecht and Thomas Mann were ground down to pulp. Heroic fiction fares better in places where there’s a readily identifiable source of human misery — something on the order of Stalin or Hitler — to write about.

Instead, L.A. offers a more general desperation and psychic malaise, often attributed to its predictable climate, to an excess of pop culture or to any number of unreturned phone calls — all of which are certainly worth complaining about, but are hardly a wellspring for the kind of oppositional art generated, to cite an extreme example, by the likes of Vaclav Havel. It‘s hard to imagine the Czech president-playwright-philosopher enjoying the respect he now commands had he lived his life on the corner of Wilcox and Selma and written scripts about the denizens of the neighborhood YMCA, or about the follies of the film industry. No, it’s far easier to win a Nobel Prize when one has the bureaucratic malevolence of communist Czechoslovakia to contend with.

Stalin represents an era when artists were feared, and consequently respected. That‘s surely part of the reason why he’s showing up on our stages, in a culture where the fine arts are often treated with indifference, if not disdain. He is a lightning rod, a reminder of a time and a place where creating art was neither a career move nor a casual dalliance, but a matter of life and death.

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