Peter DeMartino might never have spent nine months translating a 1920s Russian novel about Jesus, the devil, and a nine-foot-tall cat into a full-scale theatrical production if not for one strange affinity.
“I met Julie [Hamberg, artistic director at Live Arts] after I got to play Edna in Hairspray,” said DeMartino, who works as the CEO of Charlottesville’s AIDS/HIV Services Group. “We started talking about her dream productions, she kept mentioning all these Russian works. I kept looking at her like she was insane because they’re obscure and difficult and I had spent almost 10 years working on early 20th century Russian literature and performance.”
The two decided to co-adapt Mikhail Bulgakov’s The Master & Margarita for the Live Arts stage. “It’s funny that Bulgakov was actually a playwright, but everyone keeps adapting this novel,” said DeMartino, who received his Ph.D. in Slavic languages and literature at the University of Chicago. “In Russia, this novel has an absolute cult following because it comes out of the Stalinist period, and the purges of the artists and intelligentsia, and deals with those themes in fantastic and pre-absurd ways.”
Written at the end of Bulgakov’s life and published posthumously in 1967, during the Cold War thaw, The Master & Margarita interweaves the story of the devil coming to Moscow with a retinue of lost souls, his intervention with the titular lovers, and the Master’s suppressed novel about Pontius Pilate and Yeshua (Jesus). It mirrors Bulgakov’s own experience as a censored author, saved by Stalin from the purges, but no longer allowed to write.
While Hamberg focused on building a stage-ready piece, DeMartino dove into academic research. “My job was to keep us as true to Bulgakov’s voice as possible,” said DeMartino. “I looked at varying Russian texts and did the sleuthing to make sure we were translating everything accurately, particularly in a show about the power of language to change reality.”
In fact, DeMartino said, the impenetrability of the human condition is the very heart of the piece. “Woland, despite all his angelic, demonic, superhuman powers, isn’t omnipotent and really can’t change reality. But there are two forces that can: the Master’s ability as a writer to invoke the freedom of the creative process, and the mercy and compassion, embodied in Margarita. That’s the reality of the human condition.”
Now the script is finished, but their work is not. In Live Arts’ production of the new script, which opens Friday, May 16, Hamberg directs and DeMartino performs as Woland, the devil/Stalin-like figure. In total, the show has 21 actors and nearly as many crew members, including dancers, four costume designers, and a puppet maker.
DeMartino recognized one key difference between his life and Bulgakov’s Russia. ”All of us have day jobs. We’re all volunteers and dealing with the facts of that life. We could adapt this in ways many other communities couldn’t because we had the passion and support to do it. We get to be compassionate with people who share our passion and engage in this freeing experience with one another.”
“There’s a line in the show that says ‘Manuscripts don’t burn.’ That’s the wonder of being able to take a 100-year-old manuscript and bring it to life, when you have a creative collaborative community that proves that.”