David Rabe did theater a favor by adapting Anton Chekhov’s short story “The Black Monk” for the stage. And Simpatico Theatre Project’s production pays it forward.
The 1894 tale examines the nature of happiness — and of madness.
Rabe gives it full-length Chekhovian shape, with women whose romantic dreams will be crushed, and men whose life’s work ultimately amounts to very little. One character wonders, “What is it all for?” Another pulls a handful of flowers out of the ground and asks, “To what end, this beauty?”
It’s an unusual piece for Chekhov, with its titular mystical monk (David Blatt) arriving in a whirlwind to inform young scholar Kovrin (Matt Lorenz) that he’s touched by divine genius. But is this indeed a blessing?
Rabe expresses Kovrin’s internal struggle through direct audience address. His soliloquy makes him a sort of latter-day cousin to Hamlet, as he frets that by embracing ecstasy, he will lose sight of the other, darker emotions that keep him tethered to reason.
No stranger to mania, Kovrin, on his doctors’ advice, leaves his studies for the countryside, returning to the apple orchard where he spent his childhood (Chekhov wrote The Cherry Orchard a decade later).
Pesotsky (David Howey), a horticulturalist who raised Kovrin after the boy’s mother died, and Pesotsky’s daughter, Tanya (Sarah Van Auken), thrill at the great scholar’s return, both willfully indulging their own delusions.
Against John Greenbaum and Elizabeth Zook’s live music — piano and violin that often deliberately strike several discordant notes at once — director Allan Radway highlights much of Chekhov’s humor, even in Blatt’s ominous Monk, cloaked and on stilts, grinning at the audience on Kovrin’s command.
Howey’s frenzied, gray-bearded Pesotsky, whether poking at farmhands, hollering at Tanya, or not-so-slyly protecting his interests, roots his character in earthly concerns and action, a counterpoint to Kovrin’s inaction and airy philosophy.
Lorenz’s handsome, wide-eyed, breathless Kovrin balances on the precipice between insanity and youthful enthusiasm. It takes some doing, but he is ultimately a man the Pesotskys can seduce themselves into believing is fit to steward their personal and proprietary affairs.
But in this production of “The Black Monk,” we are not really furnished during Kovrin’s soliloquies with a sense of the underlying darkness that will prove his undoing.
Likewise, Van Auken, sturdy and bellowing — at times almost a comic foil — seems quite a stretch from the Tanya whom Chekhov described as “pale,” “earnest,” and “weak”.
Still, Rabe’s writing overcomes these off notes. In the play’s closing scene, a thoroughly demoralized Kovrin hears a familiar song and wonders, “Dare we recall what ... sweetness we knew?” For Kovrin, for many of us, our happiest moments are a kind of madness, when we allow ourselves to believe in miracles despite all evidence to the contrary.
Chekhov asks what’s better: a sad reality or a glorious fiction? Always a tough decision.
The Black Monk
Presented by Simpatico Theatre Project at the Off-Broad Street Theatre, 1636 Sansom St., through April 29. Tickets: $10-$20. Information: 215-423-0254 or www.SimpaticoTheatre.org