Reviewed by Judy Richter
Music paves the path to salvation in Jon Marans' "Old Wicked Songs," being staged by Marin Theatre Company. In this case the music is Robert Schumann's 1840 "Dichterleibe (A Poet's Love)," Op. 48, a cycle of 16 songs, or lieder, set to poems by Heinrich Heine.
The setting is a rehearsal studio in Vienna in 1986. A young American piano prodigy, Stephen Hoffman (Mark Farrell), has come to Vienna to study with a famous piano teacher to try to overcome the block that has kept him from playing for more than a year. However, before working with Stephen, the teacher says he must study with a vocal coach, Josef Mashkan (Jarion Monroe). Stephen, who's already uptight, balks at that requirement and only grudgingly goes along with the acerbic Mashkan's insistence that he study and sing the "Dichterleibe" while Mashkan accompanies him on the piano in his studio. In the meantime, Kurt Waldheim is running for and is elected president of Austria despite his history as a Nazi soldier who helped to persecute Jews during World War II.
Over time, however, the two men reach something of an accord, thanks in part to the emotions expressed in the words and music. Stephen becomes more relaxed (as reflected in costumes by Todd Roehrman), and both men become more willing to talk about themselves and rid themselves of emotional baggage. A key factor for both of them is that they're Jewish, although neither will say so at first. However, after Stephen visits Dachau one weekend, he comes back committed to his Jewishness, and Mashkan rolls up his shirt sleeve to reveal the concentration camp number tattooed on his forearm.
Damashek and the two actors carefully develop the characters, revealing nuances. Both men sing well and either play or simulate playing the piano well. Brandon Adams is musical director. The program gives thanks to Craig Bohmler, who served as musical director for San Jose Repertory Theatre's production in 1998.
Steve Coleman's scenic design, complemented by Jon Retsky's lighting, recreates not only Mashkan's old, somewhat seedy studio but also depicts Mashkan's beloved Vienna through a window as well as a cityscape in the background. Jeff Mockus' sound design also adds to the atmosphere with such effects as the sound of dripping water to go with a bucket in one corner.
It's a beautifully crafted play, a finalist for the 1996 Pulitzer Prize for drama and winner of the New York Drama League and L.A. Drama-Logue awards.