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Review: The Festival d'Avignon Presents LE MOINE NOIR By KIRILL SEREBRENNIKOV

Kirill Serebrennikov doesn't lack from imagination or flair.

Review: The Festival d'Avignon Presents LE MOINE NOIR By KIRILL SEREBRENNIKOV

When it was announced that the 2022 Festival d'Avignon season would be headed by an adaptation of Chekhov in La Cour d'Honneur, I was skeptical. Chekhov's tragedies are often very cerebral. Their ultimate catastrophes are subtle and internal. How could something as fragile as a Chekhov character make itself realized in the chasm of La Cour d'Honneur? Kirill Serebrennikov answered this question through a liberal adaptation of Chekhov's short story Le Moine Noir, or The Black Monk, which turned the writer's work into a surreal landscape. While the Cour d'Honneur still muffles subtelties, Serebrennikov's vision results in a few marvelous performances and resonating images.

The piece begins as an old man presents Andrej Kowrin his garden, explaining its upkeep. He hopes that the promising young man will maintain the garden after his death, and take his daughter Tanja's hand in marriage. Andrej does marry Tanja. However, this relationship falls apart as his pursuit of genius leads him to mental illness, and time spent in an insane asylum. He soon burns the bridge with Tanja, telling her that the only reason he married her was due to her father's insistence. In the end Tanja curses him in a letter, as her father's garden is given to strangers following his death.

It is at this time that a "2" is projected onto a large circular wooden set piece, it previously said "1" on entry into the theatre. The performance's main set piece, three hollow sheds garbed in slashed cellophane, are reassembled in a straight line. The story repeats itself with the addition of an older Tanja on stage. She has more ironic distance to the events and adds context to what occurred from her experience. She is not so much overwhelmed by Andrej's philosophizing as irritated by it. Andrej explains to her the tale of the Black Monk. It is a legend that a mirage of a Black Monk repeated from the Earth through the atmosphere into the stars, and that the Monk will return in a thousand years time. "It must be nearing a thousand years now," he says to her.

It is at this time that a "3" is projected and the sheds are stripped of their cellophane wrapping. We are in Andrej's head. This is the third Andrej we've met over the course of the evening. The first, played by Mirco Kreibich in German, has the affect of Mozart in Amadeus. He is strung out and ready to snap at any moment. His laugh is a vaudeville act in itself. American Odin Biron performed the second Andrej in English. He presents Andrej as a more amiable, if self-interested man. His Andrej is a poetic extrovert. The last Andrej belongs to Russian performer Filipp Avdeev. His striking sunken face and distracted demeanor calls to mind Camus. His Andrej doesn't have the benefit of prioritizing the world of Tanja and the Old Man, as his hallucination of Black Monks manifests in a line on stage. They occupy much of the stage. He is, understandably, more interested in their purpose than the garden or his marriage.

If the production had ended after this third part, with its surreal melancholy transforming a tedious literary analysis into something theatrically curious, my take away would have been different. However, a "4" appears. The sheds are knocked on their sides and an extended dance sequence occurs as the play we've seen three time previously becomes fractured and overwhelmed by the chorus of Black Monks. Music, which has been a constant presence throughout the production, becomes operatic. It billows up through the Papal Palace into the night sky. The projections include a mandala, the three Andrejs melding into one another in quick succession, and a hypnotic night sky. It's beautiful, but without character grounding this action, it feels tacked on. Thematic questions of madness, loss, and grief, carefully cultivated for the past two hours, are abandoned for something purely theatrical. Beautiful as it was, it muddied carefully distilled water.

Performances are strong, though the Cour d'Honneur still doesn't allow for much subtlety. Intimate conversations are projected to the back row of the cavernous theatre over strong winds, which sweep through. The two Tanja's, perhaps by virtue of having the most grounded motivations, resonate beautifully. Viktoria Miroshnichenko as the young Tanja executes the character's evolution from unsure country girl into Gabriela Maria Schmeide's cynic. The three Andrejs present a compelling cubist portrayal of genius as affect. Not to be forgotten is the tragedy of Bernd Grawert's Old Man, who realizes he might not be the judge of character he thought himself to be after all these years.

Kirill Serebrennikov doesn't lack from imagination or flair. He has built a cerebral piece of theatre that attempts to reach the same limits of genius as Andrej. Evgeny Kulagin and Ivan Estegneev's choreography is powerful, earthy, and muscular. Tatyana Dolmatovskaya's costumes are selflessly utilitarian. Video by Alan Mandelshtamm attempts to integrate the Cour d'Honneur space. Sergej Kuchar's lighting design smartly hints at the surreal to come in the beginning and takes further advantage of poetic license as the scenes progressed. Similarly, music by Jekabs Nimanis transitions the work from a country garden to a religious and hypnotic space. The piece might have more impact in a theatre that allows for a similar transition in performance tone.


From This Author - Wesley Doucette

Wesley Doucette is a PhD student in French Literature at the CUNY Grad Center. His research focuses include French cultural institutions such as the Festival d'Avignon and the innovations of administrators... (read more about this author)

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