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Two U students perform The Master and Margarita outdoors.

U students Kayla McCarthy and Noah Rios play the lead roles in The Master and Margarita, Oct. 5-14.

A play on the lawn

University Theatre presents The Master and Margarita outdoors

By Camille LeFevre

Oct. 3, 2006

Editor's note: University Theatre's The Master and Margarita, which opens this weekend, will coincide with the second annual West Bank Arts Crawl on Oct. 13. The crawl offers a free sampling of the type of events, including art shows and dance, that take place each year on the U's arts quarter. For a complete schedule, see West Bank Arts Crawl. Both the play and the crawl are just two examples of the many outreach activities at the U that foster collaboration among people in different disciplines within, as well as outside, the University.

For almost a decade, Mikhail Bulgakov struggled to finish his novel, The Master and Margarita. The first version was burned. Subsequent drafts were completed in fits and starts. And Bulgakov died while working on the final version; his wife completed the book in 1941. When it was first published, in Moscow magazine, the book was heavily censored. In 1989, scholars published a complete version of the novel, now lauded as one of the most important literary works of the Soviet era.

What was the fuss all about? Get a glimpse when University Theatre, under the codirection of Michael Sommers and Luverne Seifert, performs its version of the novel on the lawn behind Ted Mann Concert Hall. The epic, anti-Stalinist novel is so complex, explains Seifert, head of the B.A. Performance Program in theater, "that we decided it had to be outdoors, otherwise the production would be too confined. The novel is extraordinarily theatrical and the scenes take place in huge spaces, like the entirety of Moscow."

The theater group also eliminated one of the novel's three plot lines that intertwine ideas about art and religion, satire and realism, historical truthfulness and contemporary values that were subversive in Bulgakov's time. They kept the story thread about Satan (i.e., Stalin), who arrives in Moscow in the guise of a gentleman magician named Professor Woland, accompanied by an entourage of questionable characters (including a gun-toting black cat and a fanged hit man).

As this motley crew turns Moscow upside down and causes the citizenry to question the presence of God, another plot centers on the Master, a writer imprisoned in an insane asylum, and his married lover, Margarita, who sells her soul to the Devil to free the Master. (A third thread about the Master's book, which depicts the crucifixion of Jesus, is merely alluded to.)

The audience moves with the performers from scene to scene. And there will be a bonfire, and perhaps even fireworks. Adds Sommers, "It's an outdoor spectacle."

But even University Theatre's streamlining of the novel, under the guidance of Minneapolis playwright Kira Obolensky, promises to be a multidisciplinary pageant, because of the contributions of all the collaborators involved. The 30 student performers come from dance, theater, music, and studio arts. Codirector Sommers, who also directs the Minneapolis-based Open Eye Figure Theater, brings his trenchant social commentary, adventurous staging and puppetry to the production.

Minneapolis choreographer Shawn McConneloug created a movement vocabulary for the students. And Minneapolis composer Eric Jensen helped the students create a band that will perform live within the play and has written the musical score as well. In other words, the group essentially used Bulgakov's novel "as a springboard," Sommers explains, "to create a work that's our own."

The book can be read from various perspectives, as it's infused with slapstick-style humor, allegories both religious and philosophical, and socio-political satire. In University Theater's version, those perspectives will be explored largely through imagery. "The images are the motor of the play, and we tell the story through tableaux, cinematic approaches that take the performers really close or really far away from the audience, and lots of movement," Sommers says.

The back of the music building will be "dressed," he adds, to look like apartments. The devils arrive in a tricked-out car. The audience moves with the performers from scene to scene. And there will be a bonfire, and perhaps even fireworks. Adds Sommers, "It's an outdoor spectacle."

The Master and Margarita plays Oct. 5, 9, and 12 at 7:30 p.m.; and Oct. 6, 7, 13, and 14 at 8 p.m. Admission is free, but reservations are encouraged as space is limited; call 612-625-4001.