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Transcendence and Loss: Undermain's Black Monk

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“Those who warn against ecstasy are spellbound by modern society,” declares the Black Monk in Anton Chekhov’s novella of the same name. Functioning as metaphor for the pursuit of lofty goals and transcendent imagination, the character plays catalyst for debate between validation of a mystical existence v. common sense pursuit of tangible reality. When playwright David Rabe adapted the novella to the stage, (its premiere highlighted the Yale Repertory Theatre Company’s 2002-2003 season) he clearly had Chekhov’s lyrical musicality in mind and included description of several characters singing Angels Serenade by composer Gaetano Braga.

PHOTO by Brian Barnaud

It naturally followed that when Dallas-based Undermain Theatre selected Rabe’s adaptation of The Black Monk for inclusion in its 2008-2009 season, music would become a major part of the production. Resident Composer Bruce Dubose made sure that music is central to the ambience and sustained breathless quality of mystical doom that permeates Undermain’s production. Sorrowful and somber, the musical elements DuBose introduces enchant the audience with unworldly beauty. Pianist Ariana Cook, violinist Reynaldo Patino and vocal soloist Stefanie Tovar are crucial to the production’s success.

The play turns on a legend about a monk dressed in black that supposedly wandered a desert 1,000 years ago and caused simultaneous mirages of himself to appear in different countries all over the world. The crux of the legend is that 1,000 years after the day the monk walked, his mirage would return to earth and “reappear to men.” This apparition, played with unworldly restraint by Newton Pittman, reveals itself to the play’s main character, the overly intellectual Kovrin, and urges him to delve deeper into his mystical side. When he shares the unworldly experience with his pragmatic fiancée Tanya, concerns about his sanity alter their relationship and lead to the eventual downfall of all involved. Very Russian, very dark, very tragic.

It’s a testament to the collective artistic skills of Undermain’s cast and director Katherine Owens that the play remains dynamic and intriguing from start to finish, that the audience is not overwhelmed by the end of Act I. Undermain regularly takes on this sort of esoteric, ideological challenge and turns it into a vibrant creative endeavor. Directed to communicate the luxury-loving indolence of late 19th century Russian salon attendees, the play’s somber-attired actors gather for tea around a grand piano dressed with dimly lit candelabra. They sometimes chant, sometimes listen attentively to violin and piano duets or songs by Purcell, Glinka, and de Serasate as well as Braga’s Angels Serenade. It feels like time has spun backwards with the Black Monk’s exhortations.

The strident family drama emerges from within the dreamy musical setting. Patrician-featured, forthright Jonathan Brooks plays lead character Kovrin with relentless eloquence and veracity. Brooks as Kovrin puts up a valiant struggle; the audience hangs in with him throughout his tragic descent through delusional obsession and megalomania to his death. As his wife Tanya, Shannon Kearns-Simmons exhibits a natural bewilderment that logically moves from adoration to alienation to complete rejection of all that Kovrin becomes. Bruce DuBose as Tanya’s father, lord of the family orchard and arranger of her marriage to Kovrin, reveals a practical business side that launches into obsession as well, along with a profoundly devoted paternal aspect. All suffer loss, thanks to the downright creepy Black Monk’s intrusion, or Kovrin’s delusion about him. Over all the discordant grief, Stefanie Tovar’s liquid-toned voice and the piano and violin soar. The art of the imagination triumphs as Kovrin gasps his last breath in a moving, tightly woven synthesis of sound and soul ascendancy.

Undermain Theatre’s production of David Rabe’s The Black Monk runs through April 25, 2009. www.undermain.org

In photo, l to r: Jonathan Brooks, Stefanie Tovar, Shannon Kearns-Simmons, Bruce DuBose

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Freelance writer, arts advocate and NEA Fellow in theatre criticism, progressive activist and independent blue-stocking, loves Guinness and strong coffee, early sunrise in the Sierras, most 4-leggeds; will work and pray for Sustainability & Peace....
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