Striking all the right notes: Stephen Hoffman (Daniel Magill) and Josef Mashkan (William Hardy) come to learn that life encompasses both dissonance and harmony.
Striking all the right notes: Stephen Hoffman (Daniel Magill) and Josef Mashkan (William Hardy) come to learn that life encompasses both dissonance and harmony.
Bruce Bennett

Songs in the Key of Life

Austria is an extraordinary place, a land filled with paradox and drama. It gave us Mozart, Schubert and Hitler -- great beauty and unbelievable horror. It is the perfect setting for Jon Marans's Old Wicked Songs, an elegant, understated play about art, music and the terrible power of history. It is a delicate story, rich with the sort of nuance that requires an intelligent, patient, generous and reserved director, which is exactly what Mark Ramont brings to Stages, which in turn offers one of the best productions of the season.

Trouble starts as soon as Stephen Hoffman (Daniel Magill) bangs into the dusty, overstuffed, old-world studio of Josef Mashkan (William Hardy). Stephen, the anal American, suffers from artistic block. To set things right, the hotheaded, 25-year-old former child prodigy travels all the way to Vienna to study piano under the great professor Schiller. Much to his chagrin, Stephen discovers that Schiller won't even see him until he's spent time studying, of all things, voice with Mashkan.

Mashkan is Stephen's opposite in every way: He's old, rumpled, emotional, and warm to the point of being tender with the cold fish Stephen. The old man imparts his wisdom to the too-careful, too-clean American, who barks back, "As long as I'm here, I won't be happy." Patient, good-humored and dead broke, Mashkan puts up with Stephen's abuse, mostly because he needs the job. For some reason, he's had trouble hanging on to work, even though it becomes abundantly clear during his first week with Stephen that Mashkan is a very good teacher. The instructor knows the essence of great music and art -- it's the "combination of joy and sadness" found in everyday life, Mashkan says in his accented English, and then proceeds to prove it over the course of Stephen's lessons.


Old Wicked Songs

Stages Repertory Theatre, 3201 Allen Parkway

Through Sunday, February 11. $32-$42. (713)527-8243

One of the more subtle and powerful elements in Marans's script is the mystery that builds between student and teacher. Both men hold astonishing secrets, which are eventually revealed, but only after many painful exchanges. Stephen, decides to visit Dachau, Germany. "Why," grumbles Mashkan, Dachau is "just a bunch of dead Jews." Mashkan, who lives in an Austria that's about to elect Kurt Waldheim, a suspected Nazi officer, cannot understand why the Protestant Stephen gets so upset over his remark. The reasons behind Mashkan's remark and Stephen's rage cut to the bitter bone of this play.

Woven into this mystery is the music that Stephen comes to learn. Mashkan teaches him Robert Schumann's romantic song cycle, and as he does so, the composer's lyricism becomes intrinsic to Marans's mesmerizing tale. When Stephen first learns Schumann, he trudges through the words like a scolded schoolboy. Petulant and sour-faced, he sings, "In the month of May, when all the buds were bursting into bloom, love rose up in my heart." It is only after "weeks" with Mashkan that Stephen -- and, by extension, the audience -- begins to understand just how much depth resides in such a seemingly simple lyric.

Of course, without Magill's lovely singing voice and his subtle and stunning performance as the twitty American, Stephen easily could have come off as a jerk. But Magill finds the fear inside his character's cynical rudeness. Magill's Stephen, all bony limbs and aquiline nose, is full of nervous tics and tight muscles. And Hardy's Mashkan is a frowzy and white-haired bear who also sings sweetly and would charm even the snakiest snot-nosed American youth. Together the two create the sort of chemistry that makes for magic.

Kirk Markley's rumpled set, Brooks Ashley's smart costumes, Jodi Bobrovsky's props, David Gipson's lights and Michael Mertz's sound and musical direction come together to create a wonderfully compelling night of theater, at once hugely expansive and quietly intimate. By focusing on the travails of one desperate teacher and one pigheaded student, Marans, Ramont and the entire cast and crew delve into a vast intellectual landscape, only to come back with an intimate, deeply moving story that will haunt the head and heart for days.


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