I’m haunted this week by a pair of devastating images. Both involve music and holocaustic tragedy. Both spotlight young men on otherwise darkened stages. Both transform the bowing of a head into a metaphor for human fragility.
The first comes in an evening devoted to theatricalizing, in ways I’d not have thought possible, the “Dichterliebe,” a ravishingly beautiful song cycle adapted by Robert Schumann from the love poems of Heinrich Heine. A pain-infused yet celebratory work in which the mood of the lyrics often contradicts the mood of the music, this cycle is being used by a curmudgeonly Viennese music teacher (Peter Goldfarb) in Jon Marans’ drama, Old Wicked Songs, to unlock the emotions of an arrogant American piano prodigy named Stephen (Mark Boyett).
Stephen finds himself mostly annoyed at the songs’ contradictions, unable to reconcile their conflicting emotions, unwilling to abandon his own ramrod straight notions of musical rightness. But the fact of being in Vienna and experiencing the beauty of a city that has enormous tragedy in its past is having an effect on him. A day trip to Dachau followed by the realization that the Austrians he passes on the street are about to elect Kurt Waldheim president (the year is 1986) despite near-universal knowledge of his Nazi past are crystalizing the very lessons his teacher has struggled to instill.
Now, as the stage lighting dims to a single spotlight, Stephen is hearing a firsthand account of concentration campsa story so familiar from literary and historical retellings that the playwright has chosen not to recount it again for this audience in this play. What he lets us hear instead as Stephen surrenders to a grief he has previously not allowed himself, his head bowing slowly as he loses his composure, is the achingly gorgeous song cycle that has so confused the lad. The moment is as pristine in its beauty as it is harrowing in its contenta perfect expression of the dichotomy being explored by the author.
At which point, I can’t imagine anyone in the audience caring that Marans has surrounded this moment with much that is sentimental, stale, and standard. In most respects, Old Wicked Songs is a predictable, neatly tailored formula drama in which Stephen’s youthful brass gets contrasted with his professor’s Old World attitudes. By the end of the first scene you know that each will end up giving a little on his cherished notions and learning a lot from their encounter. By the end of the second (in which the supposed prodigy appears to know next to nothing about musical interpretation), you know the author will stoop to some pretty hoary genre clichés to make his points.
What makes the predictability tolerable is the analysis and clever stage use to which the author puts Schumann’s music. Though James Kronzer’s artfully cluttered setting at Studio Theatre prevents the audience from seeing the protagonists’ hands when they sit at the piano, the production would be inconceivable without two accomplished musicians at its center. Serge Seiden’s brash, occasionally overcute staging owes much of its confidence to the fact that his actors can sing and play persuasively, since many of their character changes take place in midsong. Goldfarb gets to showboat more at the keyboard in the play’s early stretches, while Boyett is allowed to trump him later in a sequence where he impersonates Vladimir Horowitz, Glenn Gould, and Alfred Brendel, a tour de force that will delight even patrons unfamiliar with their respective pianistic styles.
Gil Thompson’s sound design, in which music that fills the hall during blackouts retreats into the speaker of the professor’s scratchy gramophone when the lights come up, is terrific. Ditto Marianne Meadows’ lighting, which narrows from chilly sunlight to a warm interior glow to that pinpoint spot that makes Stephen’s moment of emotional truth so theatrically effective.
Another spotlight turns an explosive display of tap-dancing unexpectedlyshockinglylethal in Bring in ‘da Noise, Bring in ‘da Funk. It comes midway through the first act. Savion Glover’s choreography has already used the scrape of metal taps on wooden floorboards to evoke the sound of chains on slave ships and will shortly use percussive bursts of sound from his dancers’ feet to limn punches thrown in a fight and gunshots fired during a riot. But who’d have guessed he could find a way to tap-dance a lynching.
A youngster (Dominique Kelley) has been goofing around on a platform, panhandling genially and dancing up an entertaining storm. But no moment in George C. Wolfe’s staging is going to be allowed to go to applause unalloyed, and at this particular juncture the theme is how prejudice drove blacks from the rural South to Northern cities. A lighting shift and an ominous melody alter the mood as the other performers fade into the margins. The youngster’s eyes widen in terror, and his steps grow frenzied, then frantic. Suddenly he’s on tiptoe, then on pointe, his body seemingly yanked into the air by nothing more tangible than the spotlight that’s beaming down from directly above his head. Then the spot tightens, the lad’s head jerks ever so slightly to the left, and his feet stop moving. As the light fades, his torso twists slowly, first one way, then the other.
To suggest that tap has never been put to such expressive use on a Broadway stage is to damn with faint praise. Glover’s a magician, which I suppose makes Wolfe qualify as Svengali. Together they’ve achieved something ferocious and intensely angry in Noise/Funk. So angry that the show’s enormous success, both in New York and on the road, is almost surprising.
I say almost because the creators and their cast have also given the audience such a spellbinding demonstration of pure theatrical energy that it’s possible to simply go with it and get energized. The images Wolfe creates are tough, often monstrousof slavery, mechanization, degradation, deathbut the talent on display is tremendously rousing. I can’t say I was bowled over by either the singers or the songs, but the dancers simply blister the floorboardseach and every one, in each and every number.
Time to get out the address books again. Arlington, which has been putting theaters in warehouses and old schools for ages, has another vibrant troupe in an unlikely location you’ll want to remember. The Andrew Keegan Theatre Company, which mounted a breathcatchingly true Cat on a Hot Tin Roof last spring on Church Street near Dupont Circle, has now crossed the river to set up shop in an actual churchMount Olivet United Methodist, at 1500 North Glebe Road. Its inaugural production there is Translations, Brian Friel’s lyrical paean to linguistic independence.
The space they’ve theatricalized with acres of black canvasa high-ceilinged room at the end of a twisting labyrinth of basement hallwaysis hardly ideal, but it’s cheap, which allows the troupe to spend its limited cash on such niceties as a thoroughly persuasive straw-littered 19th-century Irish dwelling.
Home to an earnest young teacher named Manus (Andrew Thayer) and his professorially pedantic tippler of a dad (Richard Mancini), this modest cottage houses the only school in a rural corner of County Donegal. But not for long. An impressive new English school will open in a month or two, and even Manus and his father know it will prevail. But while the free education offered by the empire-minded Brits may be superior by most measures, it carries a cultural price: Within the new school’s walls, the Irish language will be forbidden.
Already a knowledge of English is becoming more important. As the play begins, the British army is surveying and mapping Ireland as part of a plan to integrate it more fully into the United Kingdom. Manus’ brother Owen (Eric Lucas) has signed on as translator for the Brits, helping them figure out how to Anglicize the names of Irish towns they regard as unpronounceable. That Owen’s not entirely sensitive to what the changing of names will mean for his increasingly subjugated nation can be gathered from the fact that he has never bothered to correct soldiers who’ve misheard his own moniker as Roland and now answers to that name without objection. His countrymenespecially his brotheraren’t quite so acquiescent.
Friel has a high time mocking the pompously oblivious redcoats and letting his Irish tale-spinners wax lyrical in Latin-studded soliloquies. But his loveliest observations come in a scene where history- and landscape-evoking Irish place names are, with great care and even a certain degree of sensitivity, eviscerated by their hard-edged English equivalents. As the town of “Baile Beag” (which the actors pronounce “bah-EE-leh byegg”) becomes Ballybeg, something poetic and life-affirming is clearly being lost. The playwright makes sure that every nuance of that loss is felt by the audience.
Director Mark A. Rhea has assembled a sharp castincluding radiant Hope Lambert and goofy T.V. Flatt as a cross-cultural couple who bridge the linguistic divide that separates them with unexpectedly tragic resultsand mostly keeps the play moving at a brisk clip. There’s a bit of a letdown in the evening’s final moments, when the author feels the need to reiterate a point he’s already madeand made more forcefullyto provide his story with an appropriately elegiac ending. But for the most part, the production is as eloquent and rich as the story it’s telling. Chalk up another winner for Keegan Theatre, a company that will clearly be worth seeking out no matter where it alights in the future.
Janie’s a doctor and Mike runs a nursery in Anna Theresa Cascio’s dramedy about a couple who adopt an 8-year-old. That may be why, when things start to go wrong, there’s so much idle chatter about healing and growing.
Cascio, who writes for TV’s One Life to Live as her day job, has carried the rhythms of that employment to Theater of the First Amendment, structuring her tale of domestic insecurities and competitive love in a way that provides not a rising dramatic action but lots of little crises and one-on-one confrontations. Her ending suggests that the confronting will continue tomorrow, same time, same station.
Her time line has Mike (John Lescault) bonding quickly with the couple’s prospective daughter, Crystal (Joanna Chilcoat), leaving Janie (Jennifer Mendenhall) feeling left out. Then Janie gets her act together, and Mike feels threatened. Then they team up, and the kid becomes impossible. Meanwhile, a social worker (Paul Morella) lurks on the sidelines, dropping broad hints that he’d love to be a love interest for Janie and bluntly assessing the household’s every move.
The author raises all the expected issuesCrystal misses smaller siblings who’ve been placed in another foster home, throws tantrums just as her social worker arrives, and makes cracks like, “Is Mike my real mommy?” to drive wedges between her nurturing foster father and his career-bound spousebut the dramatic point of raising them is never clear. What the audience gets is not so much a narrative as a catalog of adoption problems, and though Cascio has her central couple begin the evening with some playful chatter about whether their daughter-to-be is being “parentized, parentific, parentified,” subsequent scenes are plain-spoken enough that artful phrasing clearly isn’t the point of the evening.
Crystal’s world premiere at TFA is seriously overproduced, with a stage that’s perhaps five times larger than it needs to be, a distracting multiscreen slide show that illustrates scenes before they happen, dozens of time-wasting costume changes, and far too many repetitions of a staccato, quasi-pointillist David Maddox score that wears out its welcome before intermission. At one point, sunflowers sprout to show the passage of time. At another, mom and dad teach Crystal to ride a bike, succeeding in about 12 seconds. A dog is brought on stage periodically to no particular effect.
And in the last scene, a tree that has been standing unobtrusively in the yard all evening suddenly disappears. Why? Perhaps because director Rick Davis felt something dramatic ought to happen at some point. Still, it’s easy to understand the impulse to embroider around the edges of a show that frequently feels as if it has no center.CP