By Oline H. Cogdill
The relationship between student and teacher often goes beyond the learning experience, fraught on both sides with understanding, resentment, frustration, respect, among other feelings. These, among other emotions, ebb and flow in the absorbing drama Old Wicked Songs, smoothly directed by its playwright Jon Marans and presented by GableStage through Feb. 4 at the Biltmore.
On the surface, Old Wicked Songs is a work-place piece—the “office” here being a rehearsal studio. But the play is a look at what playwright Marans calls “unguarded, causal anti-Semitism,” the politics of the time, and how perceptions can be misleading. It also looks at the schism that can erupt between generations. Old Wicked Songs also is about music—glorious music that can uplift, seduce but also used as a political tool.
Ultimately, Old Wicked Songs is about the “sadness and joy” in music, as one character says. That duality also applies to life.
Old Wicked Songs revolves around Professor Josef Mashkan (Keith Baker) and his new student Stephen Hoffman (Teddy Warren) whose initial meeting is antagonistic. Stephen enters Josef’s rehearsal studio in Vienna, Austria, full of arrogance and disdain. Stephen is unimpressed with the professor’s shabby office, its walls badly in need of paint, the windows marbled with age.
Mostly, the 25-year-old Stephen is unimpressed with Josef and doesn’t understand why he has to put up with this professor who seems as down market as his studio. Stephen arrives in Vienna, believing that he would be studying accompaniment with Professor Schiller. But first, he is required to study singing for three months with Professor Mashkan.
Stephen’s resentment is palpable, believing this will hinder him restarting his career. At one time, Stephen was considered to be a piano prodigy. But he has not been able to perform for a year because of burnout.
His irritation and dislike increase when the professor unexpectedly drops in anti-Semitic phrases or stereotypes into conversation. That “unguarded, causal anti-Semitism,” as Marans called it, also relates to the era.
Old Wicked Songs begins during the spring and summer of 1986 when international politics focused on Vienna and its election of Kurt Waldheim to Austrian federal president. Waldheim was involved with war crimes in the Balkans during World War II. His nomination was protested worldwide but that did not stop his overwhelming victory.
Marans gracefully weaves in this political background, making the issue of anti-Semitism even more poignant and especially relevant today. Yet Marans never stops the play to expound on these issues, making them a natural part of the plot that works on several levels.
The first act establishes the two men’s relationship, ending as Stephen is about to take a trip. The second act picks up two weeks later after Stephen has returned with a different view of Vienna and the professor.
As the playwright, Marans obviously knows Old Wicked Songs intimately, which infuses his direction with extra punch. Old Wicked Songs is Marans first play, having its first performance in 1995 and receiving a nomination for the 1996 Pulitzer Prize in Drama. At one time, it was the most produced play.
Often, Old Wicked Songs is performed with actors who are not musicians, with the music supplied electronically.
But the GableStage production is gifted with Baker and Warren who are solid actors but also musicians in their own right. GableStage Producing Artistic Director Bari Newport felt strongly that two actors/musicians be cast so the music could be done live, according to Marans’ note in the program. Newport’s vision was correct because this adds a special element to the production.
The chemistry between Baker and Warren elevates the GableStage production while their music skills add another level. The change they undergo and their story arc is believable. Baker also has portrayed the professor before, having been honored with a best actor award for the production at the Bristol Riverside Theatre in Pennsylvania that Marons also directed and received a best director award.
GableStage’s superior production values are in full force with scenic designer Frank J. Oliva’s sharp eye creating the set with Nicole Quintana as set dresser and Marialexia Hernandez as properties designer. Tony Galaska’s lighting design and Sean McGinley’s sound design adding to the ambience.
Old Wicked Songs runs through Feb. 4 at GableStage, 1200 Anastasia Ave., Coral Gables. Call 305-445-1119 or visit gablestage.org for tickets and information about special discussion events. Running time about two hours with a 15-minute intermission. Tickets range from $30 to $65.