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Old Wicked Songs

New Jewish Theater, 2016

Joe and Ann Pollack – St. Louis Eats and Drinks

It's Vienna and it's 1986. Both the place and the time are relevant to Old Wicked Songs, New Jewish Theatre's current production. In a comfortable studio at a university, we meet Professor Mashkan, Jerry Vogel. A large grand piano is the centerpiece of the room, which is lined with bookcases. There's a knock at the door. Mashkan answers it, speaking German. It's a student he wasn't expecting for another two days. It's simple German - even I, who never studied any languages, could understand it - and the transition into speaking English is handled easily, nearly unnoticeably.

The student, Stephen Hoffman, played by Will Bonfiglio, is a pianist who's come to Vienna to learn how to be a good accompanist, but before his advisor will start him on his full course of study, Hoffman must study with Professor Mashkan - who teaches singing. The student must understand what the vocalist is doing before delving any deeper into the course of study.

This requirement has met with considerable indignation from the student. Considerable, in fact, may not be an adequate description. But it's inescapable and they begin work on Robert Schumann's "Dichterliebe" song cycle, which uses the poem of Heinrich Heine. You don't have to be a classical music buff to enjoy this - Schumann is a Romantic composer, so this is music that's easy for those unfamiliar with the oeuvre to relax and enjoy.

Jerry Vogel absolutely owns Mashkan. It seems as easy as breathing for him to inhabit the elderly teacher/musician who's shrugging off the upcoming election of Kurt Waldheim. Waldheim, of course was the former UN Secretary-General running for president of Austria. The allegations of Waldheim's lying about service in the Wermacht have recently erupted in the news, but Mashkan seems unperturbed; there are, after all, other things to be attended to, like the lessons. Jon Marans' script has a number of zingers and most of them belong to Mashkan, and Vogel fires them like a sneak attack with water pistols that - splat! - leaves the astonished victim dripping.

Will Bonfiglio's Hoffman wears his petulance like the lapel rosette of the Legion of Honor. His ability to draw up his mouth in prune-like disapproval would do justice to anyone's busybody neighbor. Watch how his body language evolves throughout the play as he (and his wardrobe) relaxes. Great fun.

Despite the fun, mostly in the first act, this is actually a serious play. Austria, of course, was not just the home of Waldheim. Hoffman goes off to visit Munich and Dachau, and things get deep after that. The basic theme of the play comes from the music and the lyrics - the combination of joy and sadness makes each stronger. That's what Mashkan is trying to teach the young one, for use in his personal as well as his professional life. The Dachau visit has triggered a great deal in each of them.

Somebody near me muttered - not at the play, fortunately, - "Can't they just forget about it and move on?" It doesn't seem to be in human nature to Forget. We cannot forget slavery and its residual more than a century and a half after the end of the American Civil War. To forget the Holocaust while it is still within living memory is impossible. This kind of thing leaves a residual for centuries - viz, Northern Ireland and/or the Middle East. It has to be processed to be managed, and that's what these discussions are a part of. It's not about forgetting. It's about understanding.

Serious credit to director Tim Ocel for a nicely balanced piece of work that manages to balance joy and sadness. Scenic designer and artist Dunsi Dai made the wonderful studio, the sort of set where it's easy to fantasize about living there oneself. And then there's the music. Jeffrey Richard Carter is credited as the music director, and they're using a Yamaha Disklavier which makes it possible to play, record that playing and play it back at will. Good stuff for theater use, and very effective here.

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