Bwog’s Dane Cook ventured into Riverside Theater to attend last night’s performance of Black Snow.
The intrigue of Black Snow took hold even before the play began. As the audience filed past to take their seats, a young woman cautioned everyone entering the theater, “Don’t forget your package. It’s here waiting for you.” Standing beside a messy table strewn with documents, she gestured toward several metal pails, each filled with small brown envelopes that read, “Keep in your pocket. Keep closed. You’ll know when to open…”
This unexpected introduction sets the tone for the rest of the production, which follows Sergei, an aspiring writer in Soviet Russia, on a dark journey into a confounding world both comically cruel and utterly unusual. Disappointed by unfavorable reactions to his first novel, Sergei pursues the opportunity to become a playwright and sets out to engage the Russian theater scene. While struggling to make ends meet, he confronts marvelously zany characters and scenarios of dreamlike absurdity. And although he battles desperately to hang on, ultimately his fate spirals out of control.
As for casting, Black Snow suffers no weak links. Every actor exhibits the vivacity and energy that makes a performance truly fun to watch. Joe Cassidy (Sergei) narrates his journey throughout the show, developing an intimate relationship with the audience through long asides and musical numbers. He maintains such helpless conviction that we all felt reassured he was right there with us—equally as dumbfounded. Eric Slater (Ivan) also gives an especially strong performance as the ignorant and obnoxious, but extremely well respected, producer of Sergei’s play. Like Cruella Deville meets Patch Adams (if you can imagine it), Slater flushes out Ivan—conniving yet playful—with impeccable comedic timing.
Nevertheless, the highlight of this show is the prop-work and set design. Entering from all sides, and at times taking seats directly in the audience, the actors take hold of anything and everything to keep us guessing. Innovative work with simple props like picture frames and door panels allows for an ever-evolving set that is intricately choreographed and perfectly executed.
Written by Mikhail Bulgakov and adapted by Keith Reddin, with an original score by Andrew Gerle and lyrics by Royce Vavrek, Black Snow is a world premier event put on by Columbia University’s School of the Arts. It is director Mikhael Tara Graver’s “thesis” production as an MFA candidate. Running 8 to 10 p.m. through Friday, with a matinee on Saturday, tickets are available on the CU Arts website or at the box-office inside Riverside Church. Free for students, this is a great opportunity to see high-quality theater close to home at an unbeatable price. (And no, no one paid me to say that).
Photo: CU Arts