Old Wicked Songs

September 17, 2008.By Andrew Newman, The Rake.

There’s no denying the power of music. The power it has to inspire us, move us and sometimes tell us more about ourselves than words ever could. Such is the case with Theater Latté Da’s production of Old Wicked Songs, which runs through October 5th at the Guthrie’s Dowling Studio. This Pulitzer Prize nominee by Jon Marans gives director Peter Rothstein a masterful script and propels his actors to equally masterful performances. Much more than the inspiring teacher story, Old Wicked Songs is a compelling comparison of the old world and the new world, neither of which is definitive.

The year is 1986 and young American piano prodigy Stephen Hoffman (Jonas Goslow) has come to Vienna to find inspiration. He fears a burnout and has sought a renowned teacher to help him. He is outraged to learn that the first he must get through Profesor Josef Mashkan (Raye Birk), an elderly vocal coach and accompanist who will teach him how to sing. Through their lessons, the stubborn and arrogant Hoffman slowly regains his musical spirit as the city and its dark war years bring him closer to self-realization. The key to all this is Mashkan, whose world-weary sense of humor covers his own shadowy past and the secrets he hides.

The student and teacher are the only faces we see, and Goslow and Birk match each other eye-for-eye. While his initial tension and frustration reads as juvenile and whiny, Jonas Goslow soon moves into a very natural and heartfelt performance as Stephen. His frustration remains throughout, but becomes more earnest with each new development. As more of his personality is revealed, Goslow grows in complexity without being broad or showy. In fact, Goslow grows more subtle with each new turn. A particular highlight is Stephen demonstrating  his modus operandi by imitating some of the world’s well-known pianists, complete with exaggerated impersonations that give Goslow a chance to stretch his funny bone. Stephen is the spokesperson for the new world; unsure and angry but with enough confidence to stick it through.

Goslow serves as a perfect counterpoint to Raye Birk’s Josef Mashkan. Wise-cracking and loud when Stephen is tense and reserved, Birk is an instant delight. With a flawless German accent and a decidedly politically-incorrect sense of humor, Birk saves the early scenes from being straight out of the reluctant-student-meets-unconventional-teacher mold. As Stephen moves toward self-realization, the jokes start to disappear and the questions about Mashkan’s past arise. Are his jokes just jokes, or do they hint at Mashkan’s activities during WWII? When the questions are answered, Mashkan becomes truly heartbreaking. But the play does not become melodramatic; Birk wisely sidesteps wild theatrics and plays directly to Goslow and not to the audience. The Dowling studio is intimate enough; the audience doesn’t need any favors and the performers are smart enough to realize this.

The strength of Maran’s script lies in its ties to the music. More than just a story about teacher/student relationships, the piece is an examination of music’s impact on humanity. The vitality of the play is strongly tied to Schumann’s Dichterliebe, the song cycle studied in the lessons. Each new song gives new insight into the characters; from the complexity of lost love to having the power to forgive while filled with anger. Mashkan’s lessons become life lessons. He tells Stephen that the song can only be understood when the voice and the piano come together. There can only be understanding when the new world comes together with what came before. There can only be understanding when Stephen and Mashkan finally come together.

Peter Rothstein has assembled a top-notch production team to match the brilliant performances. Jon Clark Donahue’s set draws the audience into the tiny, intimate office overlooking the city. Marcus Dillard’s inventive lighting gives emphasis to the emotions and the music without seeming obvious or showy. By the time a song or speech has ended, the audience has barely noticed the lights have dimmed or focused in. It’s exquisitely subtle work and more than complements the supercharged energy between Goslow and Birk.

Old Wicked Songs is all about being honest, as an artist and as a human being. It’s emotional without being melodramatic and obvious; every event that risks such a fate is cleverly avoided. It’s a story about two people teaching each other that doesn’t have an inkling of the saccharine one would expect. It ties itself firmly to the music, and in doing so makes many honest and complex musings on humanity. It becomes a story about friendship that unites everything with a few simple notes on a piano.