‘Collaborators’ Drums Up Ghosts of Terror Past

In "Collaborators," set in Stalin's Russia, writer Bulgakov (Tony Bingham, L) learns a new mode of artistic inspiration from secret police agent Vladimir (Ken Bolden).

In “Collaborators,” set in Stalin’s Russia, writer Bulgakov (Tony Bingham, L) learns a new mode of artistic inspiration from secret police agent Vladimir (Ken Bolden).

Collaborators, currently at Quantum Theatre, is by the British writer John Hodge. He is best known as the screenwriter for the two Trainspotting movies, and this play is another piece that works by virtue of its grisly seriocomic appeal, though it is grisly in a different time period and with strong references to historical fact.

If you’re going, it may help to know at least a few things about the Russian writer Mikhail Bulgakov, so here’s a quick primer.

The Man Behind the Story

Bulgakov (1891-1940) might be little remembered today if not for a novel published long after his death. The Master and Margarita is a surreal satire in which Satan and his crew of hell-raisers visit Soviet Russia. There’s a subplot dealing with Pilate’s interrogation of Jesus, and the whole thing strays rather far from being an uplifting tale of proletarian heroes inspired by Marxist-Leninist doctrine, so it was a poor candidate for seeing the light of day in the USSR under Stalin.

Bulgakov’s widow Yelena kept the manuscript, pushing for publication until well into old age. And when The Master and Margarita finally made it to print in the late 1960s—first in Russian, then quickly in English, French, and other languages—it became a literary hit. Salman Rushdie cited the book as an inspiration for his The Satanic Verses, which likewise includes a historical religious subplot. Harry Potter fans may be interested to know that actor Daniel Radcliffe called The Master and Margarita his favorite novel.

The Master and Margarita still awaits a proper adaptation for stage or screen. Meanwhile, British writer Hodge has based Collaborators on the story of Bulgakov’s life, which was bizarre in its own right.

Bulgakov, who’d been a medical doctor, turned to writing in 1919. This meant he launched his career in the early days of Russian communism—the Bolsheviks had taken power in the Red October revolution of 1917—and though young Bulgakov was not a front-line dissenter, his writings were weird in ways that invited ideological suspicion. (A dark sci-fi comedy about technology misused to turn a dog into a human? That wouldn’t be a commentary on the government’s efforts to create a “new Soviet man” through cultural and industrial transformation, would it? Censors of the 1920s thought so, and The Heart of a Dog got a thumbs-down.)

Before long Bulgakov found himself living in artistic Purgatory. His work was witty and popular, but most of it was deemed too subversive to fly. Weirder yet, one of his admirers was none other than Joseph Stalin, whose aegis almost surely saved Bulgakov from arrest or execution, but did not extend to letting him publish books or have plays produced at will. The dictator kept his pets on a short leash. By the 1930s the writer was a muzzled dog, bucking restraint while forbidden to bare his fangs.

Enter the Fearless Leader

Martin Giles, who's played some creepy roles in his day, gets to creep with the creepiest as Joseph Stalin.

Martin Giles, who’s played some creepy roles in his day, gets to creep with the creepiest as Joseph Stalin.

Collaborators picks up the story at this point, giving it a fantasy twist. Bulgakov (played by Tony Bingham) is visited by a pair of NKVD agents (Ken Bolden and Joe Rittenhouse) who bring an offer not meant to be refused. Stalin’s birthday is near, so the secret police intend to give him a surprise. It will be the premiere of a play extolling the heroism of the fearless leader’s youth. And surely the great man will be delighted to find the play written by his favorite author.

Bulgakov balks. Dire threats ensue. He tries forcing himself to write the desired propaganda, but cannot, at which point the phone rings. It’s Stalin himself (Martin Giles). Stalin has learned of the theatrical surprise party—“It was supposed to be kept a secret? Hah! From me?”—and he’s got an even better offer. If Bulgakov must write a play about young Stalin, then old Stalin will help!

Thus begins an odd-couple collaboration that turns progressively odder. Thrilled by the chance to co-write his own story, Stalin soon takes over the job, perched behind a typewriter in a bombproof sanctuary under the Kremlin while Bulgakov sits uncomfortably nearby. But the writer need not be idle: “You do my job,” says Stalin, handing him a stack of official reports to be reviewed.

“I’m not qualified!” Bulgakov says, providing the perfect setup for Stalin’s response: “Neither was I.”

It might be their last waltz, so Bulgakov and wife Yelena (Dana Hardy) are out to make it a good one.

It might be their last waltz, so Bulgakov and wife Yelena (Dana Hardy) are out to make it a good one.

And away the two men go from there. As the days tick by, Stalin bangs out scene after scene of crapulous melodrama, which delights the secret police, who think Bulgakov is doing it and reward the writer with lavish perks. Bulgakov, for his part, learns to handle Soviet paperwork in proper style: If steel production is lagging, you write that it had better go up to some nigh-impossible quota “or else.”

But of course this honeymoon, tainted from the start, does not last. Bulgakov becomes a torn man. In learning about the vexing socioeconomic problems that Stalin must confront, he begins to sympathize with the dictator’s penchant for making tyrannical, often heavy-handed decisions. Yet at the same time, while serving as Stalin’s “ghostwriter” (and to a growing degree, his ghost-thinker), Bulgakov is horrified to discover he’s been writing and signing directives that have increasingly ghastly consequences.

Thus Collaborators, which begins as a satirical send-up, turns ever more ghastly throughout the second act. Some themes raised by the play resonate strongly with today’s political climate. In particular, there’s a lot of business about the interplay of facts, made-up facts, and sheer delusion, along with the dreadful results of the latter.

What You’re In For

Are you likely to enjoy this play? Let’s say that it will give you many wrenching scenes mixed with flashes of absurdity. It will probably leave you with plenty to think about, whether you’ve read a lot about the Stalin era or know little. And, though the role-switching between Stalin and Bulgakov is pure fiction, much of the rest of the play is either based in fact or alludes pretty closely to it.

Playwright Hodge has Stalin admitting that “terrible things happen,” and happen they did. The forced famine in Ukraine really did starve legions of peasants, to the point where some ate their kin, and the insane Soviet purges of 1936-38 really wiped out vast cadres of innocents. Historians debate how many millions were killed, altogether—was it “only” a few million, over 10 million, or maybe far more? But there’s no debating that even for the survivors, life in those times was a double-barreled nightmare of paranoia and privation. Bring a strong stomach to Collaborators. (And an empty bladder, for, in keeping with Quantum’s tradition of staging plays at unconventional sites, this warehouse production is a porta-john affair.)

Bulgakov himself was a dapper intellectual who survived the Stalinist purges but died in middle age of kidney disease.

Bulgakov was a dapper intellectual who survived the Stalinist purges but died in middle age of kidney disease.

As for my aesthetic reactions: Collaborators is powerfully acted and directed. To the play’s credit, the actors do not attempt Russian accents, and the dialogue is written in modern conversational English, both of which I found to be good moves. They help the characters come across naturally: The wisecracking secret policeman sounds like, well, a wisecracking secret policeman, and so forth.

I do have some beefs with the script. There are places where the play feels more complicated than it needs to be, which seems partly a result of Hodge trying to work in plenty of details from Bulgakov’s personal history. They make the play true-to-life from the viewpoint of a Bulgakov fan, of which I am one, but even I would’ve preferred to have some of the stuff streamlined or fictionalized.

As for notes of urgency: Collaborators is the last Quantum Theatre production till next season, and I sense from word-of-mouth feedback that it’s going to be a hot ticket. So if you’re in the mood for theater that is unquestionably interesting—regardless of whether it meets the maximum daily allowance of “entertainment”—get online and order your seats.

Closing Credits and Ticket Info

Hodge’s Collaborators is directed for Quantum Theatre by Jed Alan Harris. Actors in addition to those mentioned are Dana Hardy as Yelena, Bulgakov’s wife; and Nancy McNulty, Dylan Marquis Meyers, John Shepard, Mark Stevenson, Olivia Vadnais, and Jonathan Visser, all in multiple roles. They’re good.

The lobby area includes a counter where Quantum is selling books by Mikhail Bulgakov in English translation, along with other relevant volumes such as bound copies of Hodge’s script.

Through April 30 at 6500 Hamilton Ave., East Liberty. For tickets visit Quantum online or call 412-362-1713.

Production photos by Heather Mull. Portrait of Mikhail Bulgakov, photographer and date unknown.

Mike Vargo, a Pittsburgh-based freelance writer, covers theater for Entertainment Central.