Theater Spotlight: Old Wicked Songs

September 17, 2008.By Quinton Skinner, City Pages.

Old Wicked Songs begins with aged music teacher Mashkan (Raye Birk) seated at the piano in his Vienna atelier, breaking into song when a knock at the door interrupts his Schumann. In walks the cosmically uptight young Stephen (Jonas Goslow), and we have thus been introduced to the entire cast for the evening. But rather than ending up a show limited in scope, Jon Marans's tidy little scenario (directed by Peter Rothstein) gently expands into both the ethereal and the horrific. It turns out that Stephen is a burned-out former piano prodigy who has come to Austria in search of the flame that once glowed inside. As a condition of this new phase, he's required to take vocal lessons with Mashkan for a few months. Stephen, more used to the red carpet than the ground floor, is appropriately defiant (Goslow paints a complicated picture, with Stephen's pissy eccentricity never entirely vanishing, even as he grows more and more sympathetic). Stephen's course of study is to be Schumann's Dichterliebe, 16 songs based on poems about love, loss, and the natural world, and here these gorgeous creations for piano and voice haunt both the proceedings and, increasingly, Stephen. At first Mashkan seems a mere crotchety authoritarian (Birk lends him wry, caustic humor, hitting the laugh lines with a comedian's casual skill), but eventually he drops one anti-Semitic comment too many, and after Stephen takes a trip to Dachau to visit the death camp, matters come to an unexpected boil. To reveal more would spoil the surprise, but suffice it to say that the balance of power between the two shifts considerably, while Stephen works through his cold technician's approach to music and larger matters and glimpses the mix of joy and melancholy that informs great art. In some of the most arresting passages, Mashkan leads Stephen through the contradictions and tensions in the music, laying bare the emotional power and depth in seemingly simple songs. It's thrilling for a music lover, and entirely satisfying as a comedic drama. "Give me too much passion to none at all," Mashkan proclaims at one point. What he said.