Mastering the Language

Mastering the Language

Synetic brings new adaptation of Bulgakov novel to the stage of Rosslyn Spectrum.

Too many words — when Paata Tsikurishvili looked at the script for Synetic Theater’s next production, he saw too many words.

That judgment can cause breakdowns between writers and directors, said playwright Roland Reed. Synetic, based in Shirlington, commissioned Reed to adapt Mikhail Bulgakov’s anti-Stalin novel “The Master and Margarita.” The theater’s adaptation of the novel will open this weekend at the Rosslyn Spectrum, but it took more work than just a simple rewrite.

Bulgakov, writing in the 1930s, set his novel in contemporary Moscow taken over by Woland, a black magician, who drives many residents to an insane asylum and makes others disappear.

Woland, who brings with him a talking cat, comes in search of the Master, author of an unpublished manuscript telling the story of Jesus’s encounter with Pontius Pilate, and eventually the magician lures Margarita, the Master’s love, into a pact to sell her soul. At the same time, the plot of the Master’s novel of Pilate unfolds through different readers’ eyes.

It is a densely plotted story that cuts across centuries, with action shifting between 20th century Moscow and 1st century Jerusalem — a story that lends itself to film more than the stage, Tsikurishvili and Reed said, if it lends itself to adaptation at all.

Reed combed through the novel, trying to pack in as many of the plot twists and characters as possible. “My script was a new play taken from the novel,” said Reed, a playwright and professor in Catholic University’s graduate playwright program.

But where Reed saw an adaptation, Tsikurishvili saw too many words and not enough action, and ended up cutting out line upon line of dialogue. “My text for ‘Master and Margarita’ is considerably longer than theirs,” said Reed. “All the language is mine, but an awful lot that’s mine is not in it.”

<b>REED WASN’T UPSET</b> by such cuts: having worked with Tsikurishvili for seven years, he knows how the director works, and even expected it.

“I was writing it with Paata and his style in mind,” said Reed. “In descriptions of movement, I tried to write knowing they would be converted.”

They were. Tsikurishvili, trained as an actor and a film director in his native Georgia, the former Soviet state, spent years performing in pantomimes there before he and his wife Irina, a choreographer, came to America.

That background formed what Tsikurishvili calls his onstage language: a blend of dance, mime and speech. “It requires its own language … to build up onstage: movement, dynamic, action and mood,” he said. “I’m using slow motion, fast motion, that kind of technique and language.”

Synetic’s language got a rigorous workout in 2003 with “Hamlet … the rest is silence,” Tsikurishvili’s Hayes-nominated adaptation of Shakespeare with no dialogue.

“The Master and Margarita” lends itself to that language, he said. “It’s a very imagistic show.” The Master’s time in a madhouse bring a surreal quality to the work, a departure from the normal that is mirrored when Woland takes Margarita to a Satanic ball.

The play has parallels to the theater tradition: Margarita makes a deal with Woland in order to be near her lover the Master, a deal which inverts the sexes from the story of Faust. Johann von Goethe’s adaptation of that story was also rife with pomp and ceremony ill-suited to staging, but has found acceptance, and French composer Charles Gounod turned “Faust” into an opera/ballet.

“People who saw ‘Faust’ will be interested to see this show,” said Irina Tsikurishvili.

<b>FINDING ACTORS FLUENT</b> in Synetic’s onstage language is impossible, said Tsikurishvili — to act in a Synetic production, actors must first go through a training program covering mime skills, choreography and elements of stage combat. “We need to teach first our skills, our vocabulary, our approach,” he said.

Those skills are like nothing else learned in the theater, said Miguel Jarquin-Moreland. After five years of apprenticeship in Synetic youth productions, Jarquin-Moreland, 19, moves to Synetic’s more mature programs as Behemoth, Woland’s talking cat, in “The Master and Margarita.”

“Paata has this pantomime technique … that’s completely different from anybody else,” said Jarquin-Moreland, a Catholic University sophomore majoring in theater who is just coming off a role in “Ragtime” at the Lincoln Theater. “He puts movement and technique into one.”

Both actor and director agreed that actors in this Synetic production must be well versed in the technique — like cast members in a martial arts movie, they must be able to trust each other.

“In the movies, you see Jackie Chan, all those feats are choreographed, and still there’s acting,” said Tsikurishvili.

At Synetic, it’s not life and limb that’s risked; it’s the sanctity of the stage. “If there’s slow music, and we have mostly slow motion,” said Irina Tsikurishvili, “if one of them lost their balance in the middle, everything is lost.”