“It’ll never pass censors.”
In “Black Snow,” which is currently being presented by Montclair State University’s Department of Theatre and Dance at the Alexander Kasser Theater, this line is often repeated to the main character, concerning his novel and play. (Debbie Saivetz directs the production, which uses Keith Reddin’s 1993 dramatization of the 1936 novel by Mikhail Bulgakov.)
Unlike the protagonist of his novel, Bulgakov has his real-life experiences as a playwright in 1920s and 1930s Russia brought to life, uncensored, through Reddin’s comedic adaptation, which frequently provoked rip-roaring laughter in Montclair.
Dealing with triggering topics in a light manner, the production follows Sergei Leiontievich Maxudov (played by Alex Eilen) as his initially rejected novel, “Black Snow,” gets the opportunity to be turned into a play. Despite his eagerness to do what is necessary for its success, Sergei encounters enough problems to fill the more than two-hour runtime.
These include everything from unabashed criticism and restrictive contracts to trouble fitting in with known writers and finalizing the script. But the biggest problem lies in the theater’s owner, Ivan Vasilievich (KB Merkel). Preceded by his reputation, Ivan is quite literally bowed down to by all; no one dares to contradict his suggestions, even if that means getting rid of the play’s most important plot points and overtaking rehearsals with counterproductive acting exercises. That is, until Sergei, horrified that his play is turning into the opposite of what he had hoped for, reaches his breaking point.
Though the plot is laced with dark themes and the rapid decline of Sergei’s mental health, its execution is anything but heavy.
The show’s costume design (by Leon Dobkowski) — consisting of large overcoats, top hats, sweater vests, suits and knee-length dresses — and lighting design (by Chris Brusberg) created a warm, cozy atmosphere on their own.
Even the opening scene, which has the protagonist stand on a chair with a noose wrapped around his neck, unexpectedly turns comic as he forgets to hang the rope to the ceiling, thwarting his plan.
Every cast member contributed to the lighthearted experience, and the delivery of their lines was especially unforgettable under the guidance of vocal coach Sarah Koestner, as many were delivered with clear power and sometimes even a sing-song smoothness.
Most notable of all the actors was Trent Greenwell as Strizh, the director of Sergei’s play. Remembering Greenwell’s comic performances in other productions, it’s no surprise his time onstage in “Black Snow” was met with some, if not all, of the night’s biggest reactions and laughs.
Also noteworthy was Isaiah Robinson’s portrayal as Kerenin and Gavril (most actors played multiple parts), two characters who greatly aided in making Segei’s involvement in the theater so troubled. His sudden changes in voice and high-pitched squeals throughout the show were especially memorable.
The script remains comedic throughout almost the entirety of the play — save for the last few minutes, which present the audience with a dramatic shift in tone. It comes as a gut-punching surprise since the script is so full of playful fun, leading up to the end. But the unexpected conclusion is just one more reason to watch “Black Snow,” on top of its cohesive wardrobe and setting, and its laugh-out-loud script, performed by a laugh-out-loud cast.
Remaining performances of Montclair State University’s Department of Theatre and Dance’s production of “Black Snow” take place at the Alexander Kasser Theater, Oct. 20-21 at 7:30 p.m. and Oct. 22 at 2 p.m. Visit tix.com/ticket-sales/Kasser/1631.
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