A quiet clash

September 12, 2008.By Graydon Royce, Star Tribune.

Theater Latté Da makes its first trip to the Guthrie Studio. But rather than doing a large-scale musical, director Peter Rothstein has chosen an intimate work for two actors.

The last project Peter Rothstein directed for Theater Latté Da was “Parade,” a big-stage musical with 25 characters and stylish production numbers. He will uses a different set of directorial muscles with “Old Wicked Songs,” which opens Saturday at Guthrie Studio.

There are just two actors in Jon Marans’ quiet meditation on Jewish identity, culture clashes and the generational divide.

“There’s more detail work here,” said Rothstein of the delicate two-hander that was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize in 1996. And it won’t be his first such shift. Two years ago, he jumped directly from “Disney’s High School Musical” to “Private Lives.”

Robert Schumann’s song cycle “Dichterliebe” inspired Marans’ work. It becomes the background for a dialectic between a young American pianist and an Austrian vocal professor who emphasizes the existence of both sadness and joy in music. The theme flows naturally from Schumann, whose relatively short life (1810-1856) raged between fits of manic productivity and barren depression. He wrote the Dichterliebe in 1840, a year of astonishing creativity in which he composed more than 120 songs using 16 texts by the poet Heinrich Heine.

Schumann was part of Rothstein’s thesis recital when he was a student at St. John’s University and there was resonance in the theme of  “Old Wicked Songs.” He got interested in the show after two college professors saw it in London many years ago and pronounced it “the perfect play for you,” he said. “It’s the world of the music studio, the dynamic between teacher and student.”

In other disciplines, Rothstein explained, there can exist a distance between teacher and student.” With voice, there can be no separation. The psychology is very complex.

“I knew that world,” said Rothstein, whose voice teacher at college was Axel Theimer, an Austrian who preached the value of German lieder (songs).

Good and evil exist together

Although the play is intimate, Rothstein said the themes strike him as epic. “He never lets the play be about one thing,” he said, referring to Marans.

Central to the conflict is the relationship of Steven (Jonas Goslow) and Prof. Mashkan (Raye Birk). The teacher bears a secret that goes to the heart of his feelings on Germanic culture. When Steven declares that he won’t sing in German because of what he saw during a tourist visit to Dachau, Mashkan retorts that the youngster need not worry, he won’t play the piano in German.

The professor’s point: you can’t reject the entire civilization of a nation – a civilization that produced not only the hell of the Holocaust, but the heaven of Schumann’s music and poetry of Heine.

Complementary to the production, baritone Bradley Greenwald will sing the song cycle that the play is based upon on three Sundays during the run. German lieder is a forte of Greenwald’s. The concert will last about 30 minutes and will feature pianist Sonja Thompson.

“We’re trying to make the recital more theatrical,” Rothstein said, indicating that Greenwald will sing in German with English subtitles and a lighting scheme. “It’s all part of how to make classical music more visual as the world becomes more visual.”

OLD WICKED SONGS What: By Jon Marans. Directed by Peter Rothstein for Theater Latté Da. When: Preview 7:30 p.m. today. Opens 7:30 p.m. Sat., Wed.-Thu.; 1 p.m. Sun. Ends Oct. 5. Where: Guthrie Studio, 818 S. 2nd St., Mpls. Tickets: S18-$34. 612-377-2224 or 1-877-447-8243. Web: www.guthrietheater.org

DICHTERLIEBE What: 16 poems by Heinrich Heine, set to music by Robert Schumann, sung by Bradley Greenwald with pianist Sonja Thompson. When: 4 p.m. Sept. 21, 28, Oct. 5. Where: Guthrie Studio, 818 S. 2nd St., Mpls. Tickets: $15 ($10 with purchase of ticket for “Old Wicked Songs”). Same contact information as above.