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A CurtainUp Review
The Black Book
One or perhaps more of the key characters in Phil Blechman's psycho-mystery play set on a college campus may share variable degrees of paranoia, schizophrenia, have acute multiple personality disorders, feelings of isolation and disassociation from the real world and (I almost forgot) also considering suicide. They are also seen as interacting with and as chess figures in a game played out on a surreal larger than life chess board to determine life or death.
The Black Book< is by design a psychologically complex but also inexplicably confusing and totally confounding play. It is meant to keep its characters, all well acted, in emotional transition as well as the audience in a state of quandary. That's fine as far as it goes except that one is likely to lose track of the who, what, where or when about half way through.
The playwright has devised a clever if also somewhat too complex strategy by which we are asked (literally) to play along with his increasingly unstable characters. If their behavior and their moves are calculated to surprise and keep us in suspense, they do, although it is ultimately exhausting.
It's a a cross between the 1920 silent horror film <The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari without its distorted expressionism and Marsha Norman's night, Mother without its stark naturalism. It's best described as a nightmarish if also surface-skimming exploration of a mind in denial and particularly in distress. To its credit, it is never boring.
Per a note in the program, the play was apparently inspired by the playwright's need to dissect and thereby understand the suicide of a classmate. The result is better at imposing its highly stylized vision rather than providing us with anything to consider either real or rational. What is most impressive is the fierce and frenetic choreography that devised by the playwright to overcompensate for the talky text.
As the play begins, a young woman (Antonieta Pereira) in a loosed white straight jacket wanders about the stage in a daze shrouded in a ghostly light. In a corner a nervous chain-smoking young student poet Collin Archer (a terrific David Siciliano) sits and sings "I am slowly going crazy." The lights come up (great atmospheric lighting throughout by Susannah Baron) on the Advanced Poetry class as Professor Arthur Chase (Gabe Templin) addresses the students at the small university where he is beginning his first year.
We are soon blinded by the light that is shed on the presumably suicidal Colin. It appears that he has gone missing on the first day of classes, but not the poem submitted by him (and inserted in our programs.) This leads the canny professor to consider that the poem's content (rather good but not essential for me to quote from) may contain clues, as does the discovery of a little black book.
Psyches collide when Arthur brings the poem to the attention of drama professor Axel Cooper (Sean Borderes) the school psychologist Julie Edwards (Margy Love) and a psych professor (Catie Humprheys) who specialized in suicides. The story: Axel is eager to romance Julie, who s not about to encourage the attention of a man inclined to sudden eruptions of abnormal behavior, leaving his stability in question.
What is even more questionable is Colin's irrational response to unrequited love. That as we all know is that dependable situation used to justify all kinds of unacceptable behavior. Unacceptable isn't close to describing the behavior that drives Colin mad after being rejected by the beautiful Nicole (Haley Dean) who prefers his philandering best friend Michael (Joe Reece.)
All these nutty lives appear to be suddenly interconnected in the hallucinatory ravings of a mad man's brain. . .but who's brain is it??? Does it matter? It may matter even less to us than to the ghostly woman (Antonieta Pereira) who gets to participate more significantly as the play reaches its climax, and we reach for the Excedrin.