LOCAL AUDIENCES can get a second look at a Russian classic with Synetic Theater's new production of "The Master and Margarita," based on Mikhail Bulgakov's novel of the same name. Last season, Rorschach Theatre used every nook and cranny of a Mount Pleasant chapel to create a densely textured and detailed vision of Bulgakov's phantasmagorical epic. Synetic's production, by contrast, is characterized by "minimalism and movement," according to set and costume designer Anastasia Ryurikov Simes. "We mostly focused on colors and strong, dynamic compositions."
Bulgakov's story flows freely through time and space -- part love story, part political allegory and part rumination on the existence of absolute good and evil. Soviet-era Moscow gives way to Pontius Pilate's Jerusalem, which, in turn, gives way to Satan's underworld. Simes worked closely with director Paata Tsikurishvili and his choreographer wife, Irina, to find a visual design that would complement, rather than limit, the troupe's trademark physicality.
"They have such dynamic productions always, it doesn't allow for furniture or any other things which come with a traditional understanding of set," says Simes, who apologizes for her occasionally fractured -- though perfectly communicative -- English.
Synetic's productions, in keeping with Russian and Georgian theatrical traditions, have an extended gestation period; Simes says she joined the "Master" project after much of the choreography had been roughed out. (In the States, it is far more common for choreography to be built around at least a preliminary set design.) Still, Simes says she hit the ground running, inspired by the Tsikurishvilis' creativity. ("I do not hesitate to use the word 'genius' about them," she says.)
To accommodate the narrative's interplay between the mundane and the metaphysical, Simes created a raised platform upstage, allowing both worlds to share the stage at once. "That was kind of a symbolic and also practical solution," she explains. Simes kept additional set pieces to a minimum; a carefully controlled color palette and long swaths of fabric manipulated by Synetic's disciplined ensemble evoke various environments.
Trained in cinematic set design, Simes has for the past decade focused primarily on her career as a painter, exhibiting in the United States and Europe. She believes her background in film and fine art facilitated her collaboration with the Tsikurishvilis. "Paata also has a cinema education -- as a film director -- so, for us, it was quite easy to find a common vision and ground," she says. "We were talking about symbolism, we were talking about not making things -- how do you say -- 'ordinary.' We didn't try to concentrate on the spirit of the time and the costumes. We were trying to come to the symbolic and essential language which doesn't remind [one] of any time period."
"Also, I spent the last five years studying intensely ballet and different types of dance, so it helped me with Irina," Simes says. "It was a very good blend." Artistic sensibilities aside, the trio -- all born and raised in the former Soviet Union -- also shared a deep understanding of Bulgakov's environment, as manifested in some of the show's imagery. "I remember from my school years there was this image of Lenin on a red background, and it was written that 'Even now, Lenin is more alive than anyone who is alive,' " Simes recalls. Thus, Armand Sindoni, the Lenin look-alike playing Bulgakov's Devil figure, appears several times in iconic profile against a billowing red banner.
Even in the post-Soviet era, that slogan from Simes's youth holds surprisingly true: Lenin's artistic legacy -- both in the fervent protest of Bulgakov's allegory and in the state-funded training of accomplished artists like Simes and the Tsikurishvilis -- is alive and thriving in Arlington.