‘Old Wicked Songs’

September 16, 2008.By Graydon Royce, Star Tribune.

At first blush, Josef Mashkan has the jolly mien of a garrulous Austrian professor. His perspicacity may cause him to snap at students, but Mashkan is nonetheless eager to please with Germanic hospitality for those who enter his raffish music studio.

It is unremarkable that we discover a deeper vein in Mashkan, this being theater and requiring some tension and discovery. What is thoroughly remarkable, however, is how actor Raye Birk brings Mashkan alive in Theater Latté Da’s production of “Old Wicked Songs,” which opened Saturday in the Guthrie Studio.

Jon Marans’ 1996 play uses Robert Schumann’s “Dichterliebe” as a musical spine in a story about the necessity of joy and sadness. All art, all life cannot exist without that combination, Marans argues through the words of Mashkan.

For Birk, this concept informs a psychological portrayal in which his outward demeanor can barely contain the deep ache of melancholy. Birk’s Mashkan visibly struggles to hold himself together as existence overwhelms him, emotion defeats mere vocabulary and music releases his pain. This is a man desperately clinging to life, even as demons would take it from him. A lesser actor might assess this set of circumstances and settle for simple contradiction. Birk attacks with a fervent honesty that ripples through every muscle, making this one of the transcendent performances of the year – absolutely must-see.

I just had to get that off my chest.

Marans’ play supposes that a burned-out American pianist, Stephen Hoffman, comes to Vienna to rekindle his passion. A mentor has shuttled Stephen (played with youthful precision by Jonas Goslow) to Mashkan, a voice teacher, to learn an appreciation for a vocalist’s emotion. Steven bridles at this idea, particularly as Mashkan uses the moody “Dichterliebe” (Poems of Love) to chip away Stephen’s intellectual armor and his preferences of all things modern. Schumann, after all, is all about heart and not head.

Some of Marans’ devices seem a tad hackneyed – Stephen’s invocation of the metronome to keep his timing precise and mathematical, and Mashkan’s attempt to harm himself. It is not a perfect piece of drama, but Marans’ appreciation for the basic mystery of suffering cleanses any shortcomings.

Director Peter Rothstein’s production is set in a lovely old apartment designed by John Clark Donahue. Marcus Dillard’s lighting deftly modulates the mood and pace, playing off “Dichterliebe” contemplative musical threads that stitch scenes together. Everything here is as it should be. Birk’s performance, however, is beyond that fine estimation.