Don't kick yourself if you have a devil of a time trying to ascertain what's going on in Synetic Theater's balletic adaptation of "The Master and Margarita," Mikhail Bulgakov's dense novel about the excesses and absurdities of life under Stalin.
Put your concerns about the script to the side and simply yield to the imaginative power of the artists who compose the vibrant pictures on the black-draped stage of the Rosslyn Spectrum. As always, Synetic's singular creative team, director Paata Tsikurishvili and his choreographer wife, Irina, employ only the most rudimentary of tools -- bolts of fabric, recordings of drumbeats, scenery that looks as if it might be held together with Scotch tape -- to distill a complex story to its dreamlike essence.
What "The Master and Margarita" lacks in narrative cohesion it makes up in ferocious theatricality. The story, adapted by Roland Reed, who worked with the Tsikurishvilis last season on the breath-stopping "Host and Guest," bounces from Moscow in the 1930s to the court of Pontius Pilate to the lair of Woland (Armand Sindoni), the satanic figure who controls the events of this dance-play like an avaricious dictator.
The Tsikurishvilis, immigrants from the Republic of Georgia, where they grew up during the Soviet era, seem to possess a bred-in-the-bone affinity for the surreal strains in Bulgakov's novel, and the explosiveness of their stylized movement is a good match for the caricature and hyperbolic discourse of "The Master and Margarita." Though the comic moments do not translate well -- a long sequence involving a kind of cosmic music-hall act falls flat -- Reed and the Tsikurishvilis offer other episodes of piercing dramatic intensity. One of the most powerful is a feverish scene that has Pilate (the excellent, rubber-faced Irakli Kavsadze) revealing Jesus's fate in a scroll that has been smeared in blood.
Synetic does not put a fine point here on conventional storytelling, which is to some extent okay; it's boring when plays dealing with the irrational hew rigidly to the strictures of linear narrative. Still, a more muscular attention to clarifying characters and situations, particularly in the play's early scenes, might have made this more than an evening of striking images. It's a far different issue of accessibility than occurs in an adaptation of a well known work like "Hamlet," in which the stage-pictures -- the brandishing of a skull, the drowning of a garlanded young woman -- click instantly into place in the imagination. The Tsikurishvilis proved in their deservedly praised "Hamlet . . . the rest is silence" that they could compose such pictures without resorting to cliche.
The landscape of physical gesture is where the Tsikurishvilis are most eloquent, and this is once again the case in "The Master and Margarita." The novel, written by Bulgakov over a period of a dozen years and completed shortly before his death in 1940, is a cult favorite and regarded as a minor masterpiece of anti-Stalinist literature (its publication was not approved by the Soviets until the mid-'60s). Its concerns range from faithlessness in the modern age to the nature of art, and it revolves mostly around the love of a writer called the Master (Paata Tsikurishvili) for Margarita (Irina Tsikurishvili), a woman of ethereal beauty who falls under the spell of a creature of the Underworld.
The company boils the story down to 17 scenes, many of them taking lovely advantage of the story's supernatural elements. It's in isolated moments of hallucinogenic stagecraft that "Master and Margarita" is at its most persuasive. Margarita's flight through a sky of fluttering canvases; a roomful of collapsing furnishings -- pianos, sofas, portraits -- played by the actors themselves; a masked ball that could have been cut from "The Rocky Horror Picture Show" are all prime examples of sharp showmanship on a shoestring.
Paata and Irina inspire the usual level of sweaty esprit in their faithful ensemble. Particularly enjoyable are the actors who make up Woland's campy crew -- Catherine Gasta, Nicholas Allen, Anna Lane and Miguel Jarquin-Moreland -- each of whom conveys a sinewy grace as well as a spark of individuality. The plaintive violins and piercing piccolos that are piped in to accompany the dances offer a compelling soundscape, and Anastasia Ryurikov Simes's costumes display consistent thrift-shop ingenuity.
At the hub of the production, Paata and Irina are a couple you don't willingly take your eyes off. When at last they meet at center stage for a powerful pas de deux, you may find yourself wishing that they could dance all night.
The Master and Margarita, by Roland Reed, based on the novel by Mikhail Bulgakov. Directed by Paata Tsikurishvili. Choreography, Irina Tsikurishvili; sets and costumes, Anastasia Ryurikov Simes; lighting, Colin K. Bills. With John Milosich, Geoff Nelson, Philip Fletcher, Dave Bobb. Approximately 2 hours 30 minutes. Through June 20 at the Rosslyn Spectrum, 1611 N. Kent St., Arlington. Call 703-824-8060 or visit www.synetic.org.