The Black Monk,” Wendy Kesselman’s dark and dainty musical about a young painter who goes gracefully mad in his little house by the sea, is just the ticket for small art venues with refined tastes. Smartly produced by South Ark Stage, this atmospheric chamber piece was lifted from a Chekhov short story and delicately retooled into a musical meditation on the fine line between artistic genius and manic-depression. It helps to have Kevin Newbury at the helm of a tiny, tight ensemble toplined by Austin Pendleton, whose devilish grin as the mysterious monk is enough to give anyone night sweats.
Kesselman’s light and feathery touch deserts her in show’s opening scenes of long-winded exposition introducing Andrei (Elon Rutberg), the sensitive lad who has returned to his childhood home after studying in Moscow; Igor (Scott Robertson), his kindly adoptive father; and Tanya (Julie Craig), the playmate of his youth. Pretty sentiments (“Hide and Seek,” “A Girl in a Garden”) aside, it takes forever for Andrei and Tanya to acknowledge they were made for each other.
Raising his clear tenor voice, Rutberg sweetly conveys the initial purity of Andrei’s devotion to his art in “Painting.” Only later, when he is so caught up in painting that he rejects food and sleep and the arms of his wife, does he show us how thoroughly Kesselman understands the all-consuming impulses of the bi-polar personality (“My Medicine, My Milk”).
Craig sustains her tender portrayal of the faithful Tanya as the poor girl advances from artless innocent (“Family”) to sorrowing widow (“I Will Wait”) without blurring a single soprano note.
With his devotion to his garden and his loving attempts to keep Andrei in the dark about the sad fate of his parents, Igor is almost as innocent as his daughter. But Robertson wisely plays him with such healthy, robust goodness he never becomes the fool — only foolish.
For all its tender treatment, this wisp of a musical doesn’t really show what it’s made of until Pendleton appears on the scene as the infamous Black Monk of local legend. With helmer Newbury reining in any tendencies to overstate his diabolical charm, Pendleton’s sadistically impish monk is both the seductive voice of creative ambition (“Art”) and a figment of the artist’s own seething brain (“You’re a Genius”).
With a filigreed picture frame around the proscenium and the two musicians (Christopher Berg on piano, Arthur Cook on cello) in full view, the stage set by Charlie Corcoran looks a bit like an illustration in a child’s pop-up book of stories. The curving planks that suggest the swell of a raging river and the toy-like furniture and props all contribute to the dreamy quality of the music and the surreal nature of the story.