“Curiouser and curiouser” aptly sums up David Rabe’s adaptation of Chekhov’s story “The Black Monk,” itself a curiosity, and director Daniel Fish’s odd staging for the Yale Repertory Theater. Why did Rabe decide to dramatize it? And why did Sam Waterston opt to play a supporting role in it? At least Rabe isn’t repeating himself. “Black Monk” couldn’t be further removed from, say, his memorable “Streamers” of 1976 or his recent unfortunate “The Dog Problem.”
However you slice it, Chekhov’s short story is Victorian melodrama. Andrei Vasilich Kovrin (Thomas Jay Ryan), a youngish philosopher of self-professed genius, is haunted by the phantom of a black monk that, according to legend, was seen 1,000 years ago and is due to reappear. Kovrin ultimately dies of tuberculosis, but not before (possibly) going mad. The story can be read in 30 minutes and may or may not be about sanity vs. madness, mediocrity vs. genius or self-deception. The play runs for 2½ hours, during which Rabe and Fish achieve something Chekhov always strove mightily to avoid — pretentiousness.
A major problem is how to present the phantom. This production uses an actor (Christopher McCann) dressed in a contemporary black suit and hat, though barefoot, who first steps out from a huge cutout silhouette of himself that’s been trundled onstage. At first sight he looks more like a gangster than a monk. He appears and disappears in a variety of ways, once suddenly dropping down through a trap. At another point there are a quintet of monks all identically dressed and gesturing. The production tends more and more toward surrealism (Magritte, not Dali).
Christine Jones’ clumsy black set merges outdoors and indoors, leaves strewn everywhere. For the final Crimean hotel scene, neon bars flood the stage with contemporary harshness. Most of the costumes are Victorian (with some quirks), but modern dress is mixed in. Clumsiness marks the production, beginning with the use of an actual tiny horse in a scene in which Pesotsky (Waterston), the estate owner of whom the orphaned Kovrin was a ward, throws a tantrum when one of his put-upon gardeners ties a horse to a valuable fruit tree. The animal simply steals the scene.
The play opens on the estate on a night when smudge pots have to be burned because of frost and Kovrin returns on a visit after years away studying. He eventually marries Pesotsky’s daughter Tanya (Jenny Bacon), at least in part because Pesotsky believes the estate he loves so obsessively would then be in good hands when he dies. The results of the marriage are disastrous.
Along the way there’s a Victorian musicale with piano, violin and singing. But the production can never decide whether to be faithful to the 19th century or try to illuminate it via the 21st century. The performances are thus compromised, most notably that of Ryan. His body language, voice and vocal patterns are all far too gauchely modern American to suggest 19th century Russia. And when, after Kovrin announces he has gone mad, the bed upon which he is lounging begins to spin rapidly, it’s difficult to keep a straight face.
Almost everyone, including Waterston, who looks like Mark Twain, does so much arm waving they seem to be semaphoring for help. Bacon as Tanya and McCann as the articulate black monk are at least acceptable, as is Pamela Nyberg as the elegant woman Kovrin weds after Tanya.
What is the phantom black monk? One explanation is that it’s Kovrin’s alter ego, constantly assuring him that he is indeed a genius. That’s the way the Chekhov story ends, though it’s muffed in the stage production.