Song echoes heart in Jon Marans' "Old Wicked Songs," a beautiful play that, like the classical music it celebrates, takes its time to mature story and soak in emotion and meaning. Much like the infamous Maria Callas account, "Master Class," "Old Wicked Songs" follows teacher and student as pasts divulge and talents unfold.
Piano prodigy Stephen Hoffman moves to Vienna hoping to revive his music and reason for playing. Instead, he finds himself forced to take lessons on vocals and piano accompaniment with a sarcastic, old professor. The professor, Joseph Mashkan, hands Stephen Schumann's Dichterliebe to memorize and sing with his pleasant, but not great voice.
The glorious piece becomes the narrator of the play, its poetic lyrics mirroring the action on stage and its magnificent melodies serving as both facilitators of dialogue and scene transitions; the play covers several months' time. Parts of the opus play during blackouts as the top border to the wall of the set lights up to reveal an exquisite wave pattern, much like the waves of music.
Kurt Landisman's light design also features the slow fading in and out of spotlights resembling the glimmer found when the suns shines just right through the perfect window. Scenic Designer Nina Ball also provides an old-fashioned studio full of books and even an old phonograph. It's a scene in which one can easily imagine the likes of C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien and other greats, perhaps even Schumann, himself, inhabiting.
The masterwork has the spirit of the greats. In addition to thought-provoking discussion of music theory and practice, Marans delves into issues of war, grief, justice and the human condition, especially revolving around the history of Austria and Jews. Bay area actors Dan Hiatt (a likeable, yet formidable professor) and Patrick Russell (a tense and growing Stephen) develop a strong chemistry between their characters. An authentic air hangs about their interpretations of these very real, very different men, clashing in much, but, even more, increasing in understanding of one another and of themselves.
Hiatt and Russell engage audiences in an amiable and well-paced staging from Director Jessica Heidt. As Schumann's score engulfs listeners, so Center REP Company succeeds in overwhelming the senses and feelings of its viewers.
OLD WICKED SONGS
Through March 2
Center REP Company
Lesher Center For The Arts