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A CurtainUp Review
The Black Monk
By Elyse Sommer
Wendy Kesselman is not the first to be drawn to this fable about a man of extraordinary talent and emotional fragility who falls under the spell of a legendary figure known as The Black Monk. But she is the first to turn it into a musical.
You'd probably have a hard time getting hold of a 1991 Finnish movie adaptation. Nor are you likely to have seen David Raabe's adaptation. It was highly praised by the then regional New York Times critic Alvin Klein, when it premiered at Yale Repertory in 2003 and starred Sam Waterston but seems not to have been produced since; at least not anywhere where it has crossed my radar.
Since Chekhov's writing has often been compared to musical composition, it's understandable that Wendy Kesselman (author of the Tony-nominated dramatization of The Diary of Ane Frank) opted musicalize her vision of this story about the power of a fableed Black Monk to feed into the talented Andrei's hallucinatory bent. With just four actors, 23 musical numbers over the course of 90 minutes making this almost sung through, you can see where this latest Chekhov inspired Black Monk earns its stripes as a chamber opera. While there's dialogue, the spoken interchanges serve mostly as lead-ins to the singing.
With the cachet of a Chekhov based text, I couldn't help hoping that this might be another off-Broadway sleeper like last year's unusual musical adaptation of Elmer Rice's The Adding Machine (review) which also fit the chamber opera genre. Unfortunately this is not the case. The Black Monk, like The Adding Machine, is an intriguing concept but it leads its author/composer down an ultimately disappointing path.
While it's not easy to adapt a straight play into a musical theater piece, doing so with a story intended for the page rather than the stage is even more problematic. Kesselman has adhered to Chekhov's theme —essentially, an exploration of the connection between creativity and madness, the likelihood that a unique talent will perish is the person possessing that talent heeds the call to be part of the common herd. She has also retained the main characters: Andrei (Elon Rutberg), a gifted young artist who lost his parents as a child. . . Igor (Scott Robertson, a successful and passionate horticulturist who has been like a godfather to Andrei. . .Igor's daughter Tanya (Julie Craig) who becomes Andrei's wife —and, of course, the mysterious monk (Austin Pendleton) who, according to legend wandered in the desert 1,000 years ago and set off a series of mirages so that it seemed as if his image was seen walking in different countries all over the world and who, as the legend would have it, will return to earth and "reappear to men."
Turning Andrei into an artist instead of a philosopher makes it easier to visualize the talent that the Monk, who appears only to Andrei, urges him to nurture no matter what the demands of the world around him. But somehow the actualized monk of the story propelling fable comes off more like a pixy-like fantasy figure from an old B-Movie comedy than a powerfully mysterious force. What works even less is the way Ms. Kesselman has Andrei buy into the Monk's promise of greatness because he feels that if he reaches the pinnacle the parents who vanished from his life when he was a little boy will return. Since it's Igor who kept telling him that his parents were not dead, that sets up a strictly Kesselman created conflict for the climax.
This odd little show is not without assets. The music is enjoyably melodic, especially so when sung Julie Craig, a lovely young actress I remember from Barrington Stage's revival of West Side Story two summers ago. It is also well suited to the small band — piano and cello expertly played by Christopher Berg and Arthur Cook respectively. Elon Rutberg is an attractive Andrei and also sings quite well, as does Scott Robertson. The same can't be said for the cast's best known member, Austin Pendleton. I've admired Pendleton's work as a playwright, director and actor, but singing is definitely not his forte. To round out the pluses, director Kevin Newbury and his creative team have staged the story simply but quite effectively, with a curving stage floor that allows for a raised walkway and evocative glimpse of fields and a river.
While there have been many modernized adaptations of Chekhov's plays, the only other Chekhov inspired evening close to musical theater I can think of is choreographer Martha Clarke's Vers Flamme, a memorable dance adaptation of 5 Chekov stories I saw at Jacob's Pillow in the Berkshires. Too bad Ms. Kesselman's attempt to bring The Black Monk isn't quite as inspired.
Since The Black Monk is in the public domain, you can read it on line or download it here. For more about Chekhov, see Curtainup's Chekhov Backgrounder