The Master and Margarita By Roland Reed, based on the novel by Mikhail Bulgakov Adapted and directed by Paata Tsikurishvili Synetic at the Lansburgh Theater to Dec. 12 Like The Screwtape Letters, in Communist Russia, with stilts!

Synetic Theater’s stock has soared, or maybe just stayed aloft, since 2004, when the outfit that bills itself, fairly, as D.C.’s “premier physical theater company” first brought The Master and Margarita to the stage. Mikhail Bulgakov’s censored allegorical novel, written throughout the 1930s but not published until the ’60s, does for Stalin’s Russia more or less what The Screwtape Letters did for Churchill’s Britain, setting a demon loose to prey on the souls of a populace already exhausted by terror. In Bulgakov’s Faustian yarn, the state flags a novelist (“the Master”) as a subversive for his manuscript about that mob-ruled hand-washer Pontius Pilate. Sinister men in trenchcoats disappear the Master to an asylum, where fellow inmate Bezdomny recounts for him his own touched-by-a-devil path to the madhouse. Margarita, the Master’s lover, is prepared to deal with anyone to secure his return. You can see where we’re going plot-wise, but Bulgakov’s theological payload remains considerably more opaque. Revised for a Lansburgh Theater run, Synetic’s sumptuous adaptation preserves enough of the text to allow you to rechew determinism vs. free will, or whether Bulgakov is endorsing a Christian worldview, if you’re of a masticating mind. Or you can just sit back and marvel at the sensory feast Synetic co-founders Paata and Irina Tsikurishvili and designer Anastasia Rurikov Simes (responsible for the set, costumes, and props) have harvested from that wicked book. Only during Mr. Tsikurishvili’s few (but too many) speaking scenes as the Master does the show ever lose its ghoulish mojo; otherwise, it’s spooky, sexy, and visually entrancing throughout. As Azazello, a beast in Kabuki makeup and S&M gear, the alarmingly limber Alex Mills may induce sympathetic low-back spasms as you watch him crabwalk-like-a-crustacean but with greater elegance, delivering what feels like paragraphs of dialogue with an inverted head. Philip Fletcher, padding around with near-equal grace on stilts—to play a talking cat aptly named Behemoth—seems to have wandered in from a Jean-Pierre Jeunet joint. As the mysterious man-of-wealth-and-taste Voland—revealed, spoiler, not as satanic, but as Satan his own bad self—Armand Sindoni brings the menace, though not the element of seduction. That’s OK; the rest of the show is more than seductive enough, particularly when Voland brings his retinue to a Moscow theater to perform a magic act with some nifty illusions, including an ingenious nonlethal beheading (the show’s earlier decapitation isn’t quite as suave) and the brief disappearance of the fetching female ensemble’s clothing. Besides this agreeable iniquity, Bulgakov’s novel famously inspired “Sympathy for the Devil,” the most immortal six minutes and 19 seconds of the Rolling Stones’ career. One of the best rock ‘n’ roll songs ever is actually a samba. Jesus Christ, if that isn’t blasphemy, I don’t know what is. 

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