The American Russian Theatre Ensemble Laboratory (ARTEL) presented a workshop of this ensemble-created piece at Highways in December. This labor of love — love not only for banned Soviet novelist-playwright Mikhail Bulgakov but also for the investigatory impulses at the core of theater itself — may have overshot its mark, but it remains a finely crafted creation of riveting visual theatricality, macabre symbolism and high-wire emotion. The four excellent performers (Bryan Brown, Keirin Brown, Olga Petrakova and Ilana Gustafson Turner) sing and speak in a collage of Russian phrases that become a cartoon of life in a crowded Moscow apartment. We hear a speech by Lenin, and watch Bulgakov (Brown) circled by his three wives like a nucleus with its electrons. There are readings from Bulgakov’s novels, The Master and Margarita and The Heart of a Dog. After the latter, a literary committee (the women, as cartoons of pompous magistrates) stand smoking, dismissive and uncomprehending. The company’s theatrical language consists of a sequence of visual images that roll through his marriages: One of Bulgakov’s books gets opened, scrubbed inside with a steel brush, dipped in red paint and hung on a tree branch; later, two women read while, very slowly, rose petals descend from their mouths onto the pages. Played out on Julian Rozzell’s set, slathered with copies of the graffiti that adorns Bulgakov’s Moscow apartment, this conception is largely dependent on a prior knowledge of Bulgakov’s writings, his marriages and his tortured life in order to summon bursts of recognition. ARTEL’s style is that of a train in motion, challenging us to jump aboard and discern from the views that unfold, rather than stopping at a station, opening the doors and announcing where we might be headed. The image of Bulgakov’s text being scrubbed while he stares forlorn serves as a condemnation not only of his censorship by the Soviets but of censorship itself — of Senator Joe Lieberman taking aim at what should be allowed on the Internet. This is a work that shouldn’t be missed.
Fridays, Saturdays, 8 p.m. Starts: May 16. Continues through June 14, 2008

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