Reviewed by Gail M. Burns, September, 1998
The Dorset Theatre Festival is closing its 1998 season with a splendid and moving production of Jon Marans’ play “Old Wicked Songs” directed by Mark S. Ramont.
And why, you might ask, should I get in my car and drive all the way to Dorset to see a play I have never heard of – no matter how splendid and moving Gail M. Burns believes it to be? Because this is a play that has the capacity to change they way you look at life and people and music and theatre. Unless you want to get in your car and drive considerably further than Dorset, this is your first chance to see theatrical history in the making.
I say your first chance because, in the two years of its professional existence, “Old Wicked Songs” became the most produced new play of its time and a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize for Drama in 1996. Yes, you will have other chances to see this play, but why wait and gamble on future area productions when Dorset and Ramont has gotten it right the first time?
And just what makes this play and this production so wonderful that I should leap in my car and go to see it? Ah, now comes the hard part. Describing the plot, the actors, the scenery, the lighting, the music, just won’t give you the complete picture. It is the ephemeral quality of great theatre to defy description. A theatre can mount an all-singing, all-dancing, cast-of- thousands revival of the most celebrated musical of our time and fall flat on its face. And Dorset can put two men and a piano on stage and make history.
That is exactly what “Old Wicked Songs” is about – two men and a piano.
Stephen Hoffman (Robert D. Mammana) is a 25 year old washed up piano prodigy who has come to study in Vienna in the summer of 1986. To his dismay the piano master he will study with insists that he first spend three months studying voice with Professor Mashkan (Yaakov Sullivan), so that he can learn to be a good accompanist. This is a young man who has been a concert soloist since before he cut his adult teeth, and he thoroughly resents being instructed in voice and how to sublimate his piano playing to the needs and whims of the singer.
Mashkan is also washed up. He is elderly and keeps attempting suicide, which makes the University leery of offering him a full-time teaching position or tenure. Hoffman represents his last opportunity to prove himself as a teacher. He uses Robert Schumann’s song cycle “Dichterliebe” (Poet’s Love) as the basis of their three months’ study together.
It is the interaction and growing friendship between these two men that forms the heart of “Old Wicked Songs”, but Schumann’s music also plays a pivotal role. Marans has done a masterful job of using the music and lyrics to propel and support the plot. Even if you, like me, have never been exposed to this particular music, or this kind of music, you will leave feeling as if it is an old friend. It really is the third character in the play.
Which brings us to the technical end of this show. Both of the human actors on stage have to act and interact with that third character – Schumann’s music and the piano on which it is played. Marans’ words and Schumann’s music intertwine with the action on stage. This requires both of the performers to be able to act and sing and, at least appear, to be able to play the piano while they do so. A special piano was developed specifically for use in this show, and the illusion it produces works extremely well. It works well in creating the desired illusion, and it works well in that it does not become a distracting technological contraption with which the actors might have had to compete for the audience’s attention.
The set by William John Auperlee and the lighting by Matthew Richards are handsome and work well for the play. In fact, the entire production was one seamless whole which captivated me for the whole two and a quarter hours of its run. For that short span of time the “reality” created on the stage was more real than the full moon outside, despite the fact that the stage lights were in full view and Sullivan’s hair was not really grey. Both Sullivan and Mammana are completely convincing in their roles.
I’ll bet some of you have noticed that I have not really told you the plot of this play. Two men, a piano, and the music of Robert Schumann still doesn’t make you want to leap in the car and drive to Dorset, does it? I could tell you other things that would have you renting a video and making popcorn in the microwave for a cosy evening at home – such as that the characters frequently speak and sing in German, or that Marans wrote the bulk of the script while living at the Dorset Artists Colony in 1991. No, you will just have to trust me on this one. It is what I have not told you and it is what cannot be put into words that make this show so special.
Old Wicked Songs runs through September 12 at the Dorset Theatre Festival, just off of Route 30 in the village of Dorest, VT. For tickets and information call 802-867-5777.
copyright Gail M. Burns, 1998