By Bridgette M. Redman
It takes brave artists to put on a play that within its text defines what makes art great.
At Farmers Alley Theater, director D. Terry Williams and actors Keith Baker and Nich Mueller aren’t just courageous, they’re skilled and successful in their undertaking.
“Old Wicked Songs” demands much of its performers. A 1996 Pulitzer nominee, the two-person show needs actors who are classical pianists and singers, who can easily move in and out of German and English and make accents sound natural. Set in Vienna in 1986, a young piano prodigy, Stephen Hoffman, played by Mueller, is forced to study with a voice teacher, Professor Josef Mashkan, played by Baker, before he is allowed to resume piano studies.
The tension begins immediately between teacher and student. The night could be a wearisome one with an arrogant student and a man spewing repulsive anti-Semitic slurs. It’s not, though, in part because Baker and Mueller do more than create likeable characters. They force the audience to love these two people and to want to spend more time with them. They spotlight their vulnerability and show us why each is worthy of respect.
Williams so deftly directs “Old Wicked Songs” that the performance becomes another thematic layer on top of the ones presented in the show. He takes each of three main instructions found within the script about how to transform a craft into art and ensures that the play follow those directions.
First and mainly, Mashkan teaches Stephen that art must have joy and sadness at the same time. Playwright Jon Marans provides most of the joy and sadness in the script, with the humor that grows between the two and the shared tragedies that they learn about each other. The story is intense, and Williams lets each moment and emotion grow, giving the audience time to experience the feelings with the actors.
Secondly, Mashkan works at helping Stephen infuse passion into his technical proficiency. Stephen would cling to technicalities, exact metronome speeds for each marking and precise notes and keys with no deviation. “Old Wicked Songs” demands incredible skill and technique from its actors, probably one of the reasons this play is rarely performed. Baker and Mueller have these skills, but the play possesses magic not because of the skill, but because of the passion with which they perform. There is never a moment where it feels as though there are simply two actors on stage. No, these are two struggling humans, teacher and student, fighting a battle that has higher stakes than either of them can imagine. They are intense, focused, and there is a life that transcends the stage in the way each of them perform.
Finally, Mashkan warns Stephen that it is better to understate great emotion as it makes it more powerful. Baker and Mueller take this to heart, especially in climactic scenes where the understatement increases the effectiveness of the moment and further invests the audience in the emotion.
“Old Wicked Songs” is part of Kalamazoo’s Gilmore Festival. Maskan uses Robert Schumanns’ song cycle “Dichterliebe” with the words by Heinrich Heine to teach these concepts of art and passion to Stephen. On May 1, Baritone Randall Scarlata and Pianist Gilbert Kalish will perform the piece in its entirety. Those who have seen the play will walk away with a greater understanding of the poet’s lament and the joy and sadness found within the songs.
The director and actors aren’t the only ones who embraced the commitment to turning a show into art. Derek Menchinger’s sound design works seamlessly with Jeremy Siskind’s music direction to blend recorded voice with live ones and live piano performances with recorded ones. W. Douglas Blickle’s set captured the feel of Viennese baroque and its aversion to modern architecture.
“Old Wicked Songs,” which draws its title from the last movement in “Dichterliebe,” is a play with music, not a musical. It explores the composer’s work and uses it as a metaphor for the story being told,as well as a device by which to teach art.
Farmers Alley found itself a pair of musicians with an impressive resume of acting skills and abilities, and the result had huge payoffs. Baker is brought in from Philadelphia, and Mueller is a music director and alumni of Western Michigan University. The results of their pairing is stunning, and “Old Wicked Songs” is breathtaking in its emotional strength and technical expertise.
‘Old Wicked Songs’
Farmers Alley Theatre, 221 Farmers Alley, Kalamazoo. 8 p.m. Thursday-Saturday, and 2 p.m. Sunday through May 18. $27-29. 269-343-2727. http://www.farmersalleytheatre.com