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Review: ‘The Black Monk’ at the Undermain Theatre

by Jerome Weeks 10 Apr 2009 2:58 PM

Playwright David Rabe’s adaptation of the short story, “The Black Monk,” may be the closest thing we have to a “newly discovered” drama by Anton Chekhov. It’s also a back-door way for the Undermain to stage a Chekhov play, something they’ve done only once before.



The Black Monk, l to r: Jonathan Brooks, Stefanie Tovar, Shannon Kearns-Simmons, Bruce DuBose

  • Audio clip – Pesotsky (Bruce DuBose) explains “The Angel’s Serenade” by Gaetano Braga, sung by Stefanie Tovar:
  • Audio clip – Korvin (Jonathan Brooks) debates the Black Monk (Newton Pittman):
  • Ed Townley’s review at Pegasus News

Happy news: Playwright David Rabe’s adaptation of the short story, “The Black Monk,” may be the closest thing we have to a “newly discovered” Chekhov stage work — at least since Chekhov’s early play, Ivanov, was significantly revised/adapted by David Hare (1997) and then Tom Stoppard (2008). “The Black Monk” (1894) is a highly unusual story for Chekhov because of its title figure, a gothic manifestation that haunts Kovrin, the main character. Chekhov was a doctor, a clear-eyed realist, and although playing with ghosts or hallucinations was very popular at the time, they hardly suited him. This seems to have been the only time.

In a nightmare, Chekhov saw a black monk floating over the land, reappearing again and again. But if the figure seems to intrude into the playwright’s work from another world (or his subconscious), the monk does visit a classic Chekhov character. Kovrin is an ambitious young author-intellectual who believes his philosophical studies will improve our lives but who, not surprisingly, comes to comic frustration. As critic Eric Bentley wrote, the “might-have-been” character is Chekhov’s idee fixe. He appears in play after play.

In fact, whole chunks of The Black Monk, handsomely staged by the Undermain Theatre, are unmistakable precursors to Chekhov’s masterpieces-to-come. Much of the play, like The Cherry Orchard (1903), is set in a provincial estate with a working orchard fussed over by the landowner, Yegor Pesotsky, who adopted Kovrin as an orphan. Kovrin himself recalls Treplev in The Seagull (1896), the dreamy poet who wants to create new forms. And the pointless family arguments between Pesotsky and his daughter Tanya are pretty much endemic in Chekhov’s plays from Uncle Vanya (1897) to The Three Sisters (1901).

But what truly makes The Black Monk Chekhovian is its deft, intertwining of comedy and drama. Chekhov diagnosed each of his characters with no illusions about them, no judgments. Each is allowed to be ordinary and eccentric, profound and foolish. Kovrin is clearly a satire of the Romantic artist-thinker who is certain he’s wiser and more sensitive than us simple, crude folk . His inspirations are so profound, so otherworldly, they may even be a form of divine madness.

Or so he’d like to think. One of the sly bits of destabilizing humor in the play comes when Kovrin encounters the legendary ghost he’s read about. The black monk, Kovrin promptly discovers, has come just for Kovrin. Kovrin is a genius, Kovrin is a man of destiny.


Newton Pittman as the title character in The Black Monk

Kovrin, of course, is crazy. The monk is an hallucination, flattering him with what Kovrin already believes about himself. Even so, Kovrin is not a repellent egotist. He’s an appealing egotist (at first). In actor Jonathan Brooks’ hands, he’s eager, handsome, well-intentioned and full of promise.

But it’s this Chekhovian balance of satire and drama that the Undermain gets a little off. The Undermain has staged a  Chekhov play before (The Seagull in 1998), so David Rabe’s adaptation is sort of a back-door second opportunity, a fresh way of getting at some very familiar turf. Rabe has amplified Chekhov’s story in significant ways. To make it more theatrical, he’s expanded the character of Pesotsky, for instance. That may have been partly because the actor Sam Waterston was one of the instigating forces behind the adaptation, and the role was enlarged to suit the star.

But it’s just as likely that Rabe sought to triangulate the play, making it more of a characteristic Chekhov ensemble piece, complete with comic, dottering servants. The short story is almost entirely about Kovrin, his desires and delusions, while the play is more about the trio: Kovrin, Pesotsky and Tanya. Kovrin’s dementia, for instance, is now more clearly matched by Pesotsky’s own obsessive-possessive behavior toward his orchard. But in compensation, Rabe has also underscored Pesotsky’s nature as an energetic, cultured paterfamilias. He oversees a convivial salon (greatly expanded from the original story) — with a musical performance of Gaetano Braga’s “Angel’s Serenade” (aka “La serenata”), a song which Pesotsky translates from the Italian. (Listen to the first audio clip, above.)

On opening night, Bruce DuBose’s performance as Pesotsky was spirited but broad and loud, not as comfortably inhabited as many of his other stage characterizations. It’s as if, uncertain of the comic elements in Chekhov, director Katherine Owens pushed them a little hard.

A similar imbalance (but in the other direction) affects Brooks’ handling of Kovrin by the end. In contemporary terms, Kovrin is manic-depressive. When he first converses with the monk, he’s filled with such excitement and energy he impulsively proposes marriage to Tanya (Shannon Kearns-Simmons). This is the same woman he privately rejected as a marriage prospect only moments before. Then when their marriage goes sour and he is frustrated in his hopes as a philosopher, Kovrin turns angry and despairing. He complains about his fellow academics and insults his wife.

But by the end of the play we find Kovrin in a third emotional state. He recognizes that he is neither soulful genius nor utter failure. He is like most of us: ordinary,  medium-talented. The story says (and much of this is spoken onstage) that “to gain the position of a mediocre learned man, he, Kovrin, had had to study for fifteen years, to work day and night, to endure a terrible mental illness, to experience an unhappy marriage, and to do a great number of stupid and unjust things which it would have been pleasant not to remember. Kovrin recognized clearly, now, that he was a mediocrity, and readily resigned himself to it, as he considered that every man ought to be satisfied with what he is.”

This moment of clarity is also very Chekhovian — think of Uncle Vanya recognizing how much of his life has been in vain. Yet Brooks delivers these lines with the same ranting bitterness that he earlier directed toward Tanya and his co-workers. When last we see Kovrin he is shouting Tanya’s name with a smile on his face and with the monk whispering to him that he really is a genius.  He may be freshly wrapped up in his delusions, but Kovrin did have that moment of clarity before sinking back into his life-as-it-was — exactly like Vanya.

I’ve gone at length on these subtle points because Chekhov is a subtle playwright, an author of minute emotional calculations and layered, sometimes contradictory characterizations. It’s actually a testament to the precisions of Katherine Owens’ production that these slips are apparent — many stagings of Chekhov are just some beef Stroganoff muddle.

Overall, the Undermain’s show is dark and rich and splendid looking, thanks to costumer Bryan Wofford, lighting designer Steve Woods, sound designer DuBose and set designer John Arnone. They make the Undermain basement pass as Russian salon, frosty orchard, Moscow apartment and Sebastopol suite, and they make the actors look resplendent, notably Maryam Baig as Kovrin’s second wife, Varvara. A provincial family might not have had things quite so rich — a little more worn or shabby — but the overall twilight feel of this production is one of its great, appealing accomplishments.

So, too, is its most haunting character. Newton Pittman plays the monk with a calm, offhand presence. He seems perfectly real, perfectly human and sympathetically interested in Kovrin — which makes him all the more fascinating. He’s not some ghost-story apparition or wigged-out fantasy. This hallucination whispers his advice. Pittman’s monk is precisely the kind of quiet, otherworldly authority Kovrin might conjure up — a kind of Zen mirror, an empty vessel, an echo of his own dreamed-of better self, a self he’ll never fully realize.