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"Collaborators" Review - A Biting Satire

By morton hochstein

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There are many readers and playgoers today who may not know the Russian author and playwright Mikhail Bulgakov, most recognized for his novel, “The Master and Margarita.” In the late 1920’s, Bulgakov  ran afoul of Soviet tyranny. While his closest friends were jailed, sent to Siberia or ‘disappeared” in the Soviet fashion, Bulgakov managed to continue writing and was attacked for collaborating with the dictatorial powers.

 

Collaborators

His story unfolds in “Collaborators,” an imaginative play which won England’s Olivier Award in 2012. The run of the play was extended in London, but somehow never made it to the United States until this winter. “Collaborators” is play on Manhattan’s lower East Side and definitely deserves a more prominent stage. It’s the kind of play I recommend to friends and visitors to New York, particularly theatergoers who aren’t devoted to spectacular musicals.

 

The collaborators in this hilarious, terrifying and brilliant black comedy are Mikhail Bulgakov, the impoverished black-listed Soviet writer, and Josef Stalin, a rotund, genial version of the killer dictator of the Soviet Union.   In 1938 Stalin wants Bulgakov to write a 60th birthday tribute to be titled “Young Stalin.”  Bulgakov, out of work since his wildly satirical, thinly-veiled anti-government plays were banned, lives in a heatless, cold-water, shared apartment which gets a lot of laughs from the sardonic humor of the oppressed.  It’s an offer from the brutal secret service (NKVD) that he can’t refuse, and stay in one piece.

 

Gunpoint

Still, it’s hard for him to start—till Stalin with a folksy, friendly mid-American accent--bursts in to help and soon is writing the tribute on Bulgakov’s doddering typewriter.

 

The characters in “Collaborators” (twelve actors playing some two dozen parts) are interesting and sharply defined.   I loved the apartment sharers—the resigned but clear-sighted Vasilly (Edward Prostak) and his wife, Praskovya (Jessica Levesque) who makes truculence delightful, and Sergei (the  innocent believer) who lives in the closet and learns.  Bulgakov (Brian J. Carter) is supreme and convincing in a play that is written in the style of Bulgakov himself.   His burdened wife Yelena (Erin Biernard) is a paragon of tensile strength.  Vladimir of the NKVD (Robin Haynes) changes from heartless villain to pretentious ­bon vivant as Bulgakov’s life-style improves—pots on the stove, food in the pots, bath-water, a nice new suit and plenty of vodka.  And then Vladimir changes to something else (I’m not telling but it was brilliant, controlled acting.) And Stalin (Ross Degraw), morphs from frightening monster to chummy, huggable teddy bear and back again to blood curdling dictator.   

The Red Book

But that’s not all.  There is a side show, a second stage at one side of the main platform. Here’s where excerpts from “Young Stalin” are acted out and also some pungent scenes from Bulgakov’s play “A Cabal of Hypocrites,” in which the conflict between France’s 17th century playwright Moliere and King Louis XIV is a strong parallel to Bulgakov’s travails with Stalin. Here is where Soviet “justice” is meted out. For all this bounty of a production, credit goes to the insightful, inventive, most savvy director, Peter Dobbins.

 

There is not a superfluous word in the script.  All of the characters are tightly etched. I cannot imagine how the British cast could have been better, although I certainly would have enjoyed seeing the great Simon Russell Beale who played Stalin in London. This is a main-stem quality play.    

 

John Hodge, the British playwright, is best known for his movies (“Trainspotting,” et.al.) He actually began “Collaborators” as a film until, he told an interviewer, the script became unwieldy and needed a stage.

 

Surprise

Bulgakov, who was black-listed for his savage satires (literary and theatrical) of life and art under the Soviet system, once wrote a letter to Stalin requesting that since he could not practice his art (or earn a living) he should be allowed to leave Russia.  Stalin telephoned him and asked if he really wanted to live in exile.  Bulgakov admitted that writers are better off in their homeland.  Stalin relented and the beset writer was permitted to rejoin the Moscow Art Theater, though still under a cloud. John Hodge, in an interesting parallel, studied medicine as Bulgakov did, and was also a practicing physician before becoming a writer.

 

Stalin had fancied Bulgakov’s writing since 1926 when the play “Days of the Turbins,” treating the fate of Russian intellectuals and Tsarist officers caught up in the Russian revolution, was staged at the Moscow Art Theater.   Critics were outraged that Bulgakov portrayed the white officers (enemies of the revolution) with a great deal of sympathy, but the public loved the play, as did Stalin himself. He reportedly saw the production at least fifteen times and championed the playwright. When one of Moscow’s theater directors severely criticized Bulgakov’s political leanings,  the dictator defended his protégé, declaring that a writer of Bulgakov’s quality was above “party words” like ‘left or right.” And then he changed his mind. Subsequently, the playwright lost favor and Soviet censorship prevented the publication of any of his work.

 

 

The playwright

That sets the stage for “Collaborators,” and the fragile relationship between playwright and dictator. This is a speech to Bulgakov by the Stalin character in “Collaborators”:  Killing my enemies is easy. The challenge is to change the way they think, to control their mind. And I think I controlled yours pretty well. In years to come, I’ll be able to say: ‘Bulgakov? Yeah, we even trained him. He gave up. He saw the light. We broke him, we can break anybody. It’s man versus monster, Mikhail. And the monster always wins.

 

In Stalin’s day and beyond, the only way a  Russian writer could get dissent past the censors was by disguising it in fantasy and black humor.  John Hodge really gets it.

 

“Collaborators,” a production of the Storm Theater Company, will run  through February 13 at the Grand Hall, St. Mary’s Church, 444 Grand Street in Manhattan.  Tickets are $25.

More information at the Stormtheatre website 

Photo credit: Michael Abrams

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Published on Jan 19, 2016

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