Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Once upon a time in Vienna

Plays about the artistic process have the same problem as sports movies. You watch Barton Fink struggle to write or Muhammad Ali sharpen his skills in beating the crap out of people. If you’re a professional, you think “That’s not the way it works.” If you’re not, you probably don’t relate to the material.

Jon Marans' Old Wicked Songs has a strikingly original take. Whether you're an artist or not, the playwright grabs you.

His play's central character, Stephen Hoffman (Ken Ferrigni), is an aging child prodigy with pianist performance problems. He goes to Europe get his groove back. The master piano teacher commands him to study with a voice coach first — Prof. Josef Mashkan (Kenneth Tigar). The deal: for three months, Stephen doesn’t get to play the piano. He sings while Josef plays. Which is sort of like sending Dale Earnhardt for three months of track and field lessons, but there’s a method to this madness. It’s all about using music to create an emotional connection, and not go through the motions in a dead formal exercise.

The lessons revolve around Schumann's Dichterliebe, a heartstring-tugging cycle of unrequited love songs set to 16 poems by Heinrich Heine. Like Yoda in The Empire Strikes Back, Josef gets into a battle of wits with Stephen and it’s no contest. It’s Old World vs. New World, American impatience vs. European romantic brooding; Philip Glass’ one-note, android music and Phillip Johnson’s glass houses vs. loop-the-loop 19th-century compositions and Vienna’s bric-a-brac encrusted architecture. Stephen might seem like a strawman set up to be knocked down except for one thing ...

For all his weepy, music-must-touch-the-heart romanticism, Josef is a right bastard.

More specifically, Josef seems to be an unrepentant Nazi bastard, constantly dropping little bon mots like, “The Jews weren’t the only ones who suffered.” The play is set in 1986, when Kurt “What, Me Nazi?” Waldheim is running for Austrian president. For Josef and Stephen both, that particular nerve has been rubbed very raw. Where their pain comes from, we find out later.

I expected the play to end on a Stephen-learns-from-Josef-but-the-teacher-learns-from-his-student note. Followed by one big hug. That’s not what happens — but I can’t tell you what happens without spoiling it.

Enough to say, it’s a great play with great direction by Maran — who obviously had great insight into the playwright’s intentions, since he happened to be the playwright. As to the actors, Ferrigni and Tigar put all their hearts, minds and souls into the performance.

Josef would have been proud.

Old Wicked Songs
A Banyan Theater Company production
Through Aug. 2
FSU Center for the Performing Arts
5555 N. Tamiami Trail, Sarasota

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