“Forget all the laws of optics, which the legend does not recognize”
—Anton Chekhov, The Black Monk
Attempting to summarize the best modernist short stories is futile; it’s impossible to capture the depth and subtleties that make the stories great. The endings aren’t tidy; their meanings are opaque. THE BLACK MONK is an exemplar of the form, written in the 1890s by the father of the modern short story, Anton Chekhov.
The story has been ably adapted for the stage by Tony-award winning playwright David Rabe and is now getting just its third production (and its first without Rabe’s organization) by Philadelphia’s Simpatico Theatre Project. Chekhov is also a great playwright, but adapting the drama and depth of his story writing to the stage is as difficult as communicating it in summary. Rabe and director Allen Radway have succeeded magnificently.
Stressed-out young academic Andrei Vasilich Kovrin (Matt Lorenz) returns home to relax among the immaculate orchards of Yegor Semyonich Pesotsky (David Howey), his former guardian. Encouraged by Pesotsky, he marries the guardian’s daughter Tanya (Sarah Van Auken). But Kovrin’s inner struggles remain, manifested in visits from a mythic figure, the Black Monk.
It’s always impressive to see the supernatural well represented on stage, without the imaginative aids of the written page or the special effects of the screen. The monk is friendly and unthreatening, but his arrivals arrivals with compliments and promises of future greatness sent shivers down my spine.
Radway is a very good actor (he shone recently as the Zygmunt in OUR CLASS at the Wilma), and he has caressed stellar acting performances by all his main cast. Van Auken and Howey display consistency of character through demanding ranges of tone and emotion. Lorenz walks a line between rationality and madness with skill (the next local production of HAMLET has found its title character). With elegant cues, Radway draws the audience into his inner monologues (and excludes us when necessary), implicating us in Kovrin’s insanity and visions.
But Radway’s skill, and Rabe’s, is in understanding that Chekhov’s tale is not about the supernatural or madness, it is not satisfied with exploring the line between creative genius and lunacy. THE BLACK MONK is about the key questions of life. It explores our relationships with those around us, the ways we use and squander our talents, the tragic cruelties of love and mortality.
Audiences may leave the first act vexed and puzzled, they will leave the second stirred and provoked. But as with Chekhov’s writing, the play provides no simple answers to the questions it raises; it sheds light on them and begs their consideration. Highly recommended for fans of literature or thoughtful theater.
The production’s excellent use of music is worth mentioning. I’m generally not a fan of background music in theater, evoking emotions through song, not dialogue or action, feels like cheating; an unwelcome theft of the borrowed grandeur of movie soundtracks. Music plays a key role in THE BLACK MONK, but the onstage performances of violin, piano, and vocal fit perfectly, complementing the action without cheating it. (Original music by Elizabeth Zook and John Greenbaum.)
Most other technical aspects (Christopher Haig) are also gracefully handled (I’m thinking especially of a scene change from the countryside to a Moscow apartment), although the lighting (Leigh A. Mumford) was sometimes distractingly dark.
Simpatico impressed with its 2010-2011 productions of CRYPTOGRAM by David Mamet and with the local premiere of EVIE’S WALTZ. THE BLACK MONK once again demonstrates Radway’s skills as a director and confirms Simpatico as one of the best indie companies in town.
THE BLACK MONK
By David Rabe, adapted from the story by Anton Chekhov
Directed by Allen Radway
April 10-29, 2012
Simpatico Theatre Project
at the Off-Broad Street Theater
1636 Sansom St.