December 20, 2008

The Cardinal Sins of "The Black Monk"

Has there been a sale on snowmakers this season? It seems as though every other show I’ve seen over the past couple of weeks has featured a blizzard of some sort. That made sense for White Christmas and Slava’s Snowshow but less so when the downfall comes in the middle of The Black Monk, the small musical that South Ark Stage opened earlier this month at Theatre Row’s The Beckett Theatre. Alas, there isn’t much about The Black Monk that makes sense.

Yeah, I know what you regular readers are thinking. In my previous post I kicked the megamusical Shrek and now I’m picking on this little one. But no, nobody slipped me a Mickey of grumpy juice. And I had high hopes for The Black Monk when I first head about it. The piece is, as the Playbill notes, “inspired by the Anton Chekhov story” of the same name. I’ve seen a number of Chekhov’s classic plays this year and the idea of seeing a new Chekhov intrigued me. I also admire the show’s star Austin Pendleton. So I emailed my friend Ellie, the one-time actress, current poet and professor and longstanding lover of Chekhov, and off we went to see it.

The Black Monk tells the story of a young Russian (a philosopher in the story, an artist in the show) who, torn between the demands of the people he loves and the work he loves, makes a Faustian pack with a mysterious monk. And since the monk may be imaginary, the story also explores the relationship between genius and madness.

Wendy Kesselman, who did the adaptation for the 1998 revival of The Diary of Anne Frank, wrote both the book and music for The Black Monk and she's turned a delicate metaphysical tale into a mundane musical. Just as with Jill Santoriello, who took the same one-woman-band approach to the recently-departed A Tale of Two Cities, the results make you want to lobby for a law requiring all musicals to be written by at least two collaborators so that one person will be around to tell the other “This isn’t working.”

Its producers call The Black Monk a chamber musical. And the production could fit into most one-bedroom Manhattan apartments. There are just four actors and two—yes, count ‘em, 2—musicians: a hardworking pianist and cellist who have to churn through 23 unremarkable songs in just 90 minutes.

Of course, size shouldn’t matter but it seems to me that when you’re this small you should pay extra attention to the little details, which director Kevin Newbury definitely doesn't do. If a character is going to make a big fuss about sunflowers shouldn’t she be holding sunflowers instead of lilacs and roses? If the title character has to sing, shouldn’t he be able to carry a tune or at least be persuaded to talk his way through the number? As Pendleton warbled his way through one song after another, I squeezed my eyes shut like a toddler who believes that doing so means people will go away because it can’t see them. It didn’t work.

The miscast Pendleton aside, the actors—Elon Rutberg as the artist Andrei, Julie Craig as the woman he loves Tanya and Scott Robertson as her father Igor—do the best they can with what they’ve been given. But the real stars of the show are the technical folks—operating on limited budgets, they still manage to work a bit of stage magic. About half an hour in, a lovely old bed was wheeled on stage and Ellie leaned over and whispered “The bed is the best thing so far.” She still felt that way an hour later. I was enchanted by D.M. Wood’s lighting which painted luminous pictures on Charlie Corcoran’s simple but elegant set, helping it to morph gracefully from outdoor gardens to indoor chambers.

The actor David Rasche was in the audience at the performance Ellie and I attended. I assumed he’d come out of friendship for someone in the cast and wondered
if his recent experience with the equally-disappointing To Be or Not to Be would help him know what to say when he made the obligatory backstage visit after the show. Whatever he said, he must have said it quickly because just minutes after Ellie and I settled in at the bar of the always reliable West Bank Cafe across the street, Rasche and his companion came in. A stiff drink is always welcomed after you’ve had to trudge through slush.

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