Lessons of life learned singing at the keyboard

Theater

Review: Robert Riggs and Stephen Antonsen are more than up to the challenges of `Old Wicked Songs' in a beautiful production at Theatre Hopkins.

March 06, 2000|By J. Wynn Rousuck | J. Wynn Rousuck,SUN THEATER CRITIC

There's a combination of joy and sadness at the core of all great art, contends the character of a vocal instructor in Jon Marans' "Old Wicked Songs."

Written by a former Marylander, this moving 1996 Pulitzer Prize-nominated play is receiving a stunning production at Theatre Hopkins. The plot focuses on an American concert pianist, a former child prodigy named Stephen Hoffman, who has lost his love for music and travels to Vienna to learn to accompany singers.

When he arrives for his first lesson, however, Hoffman discovers he is not studying piano, but voice -- a course deemed essential by his piano instructor. Stephen Antonsen's arrogant Hoffman not only rebels at this idea, he takes an instant dislike to the vocal instructor, Josef Mashkan, who gives every indication of being an anti-Semite.

Although Antonsen's character is angry and tense, and Robert Riggs' Mashkan seems more easy-going, in some ways the difficult student and his demanding teacher are well-matched. At heart, both are deeply distrustful and unhappy. Each has something to learn from the other: One has felt life too deeply; the other, not deeply enough.

Hoffman also learns that first impressions can be deceiving, a theme reinforced by the music he is studying -- Robert Schumann's song cycle "Dichterliebe," based on Heinrich Heine's poems about lost love. (A lyric from the last of these songs supplies the play's title.) In the play, Hoffman is concentrating on a song near the middle of the cycle that begins, "I bear no grudge" -- a song whose spiteful mood contradicts its conciliatory lyric.

The layered music and lyrics of the lieder function on several levels, including the political. "Old Wicked Songs" takes place in 1986, and Kurt Waldheim is running for the Austrian presidency despite his complicity in Nazi war crimes. The dark shadow of the Holocaust looms over the action, as Hoffman discovers the painful truth of his teacher's belief in the synthesis of joy and sadness.

"Old Wicked Songs" is a play that presents considerable challenges for actors, requiring them not only to portray complex characters, but also to sing, occasionally in German. Under Suzanne Pratt's skillful direction, Antonsen and Riggs are admirably up to the task. (The piano they play is a Yamaha Disklavier, a computerized version of a player piano, with music recorded by pianist Joseph Francavilla.)

As intricate in its own way as Schumann's lieder, "Old Wicked Songs" is beautifully realized at Theatre Hopkins.

Show times at Theatre Hopkins, in the Merrick Barn at Johns Hopkins University, 3400 N. Charles St., are 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, 2: 15 p.m. Sundays, through March 19. Tickets are $10 and $12. Call 410-516-7159.

Oates play tops bill

The world premiere of a play by Joyce Carol Oates about Marilyn Monroe will highlight the 10th anniversary season of the Contemporary American Theater Festival in Shepherdstown, W.Va., July 7-30.

"I'm tremendously excited that we're doing four new American plays," said Ed Herendeen, producing director. "We're telling four different American stories that in some cases are old stories told anew. All four stories have a major impact on contemporary society."

"Miss Golden Dreams, a play cycle," which deals with the men in Monroe's life, will be the third Oates play produced by the festival. Her novel about Monroe, "Blonde," will be published by HarperCollins in April. Oates also serves as honorary chair of the festival's Commissioning Project.

This year's festival lineup: "Something in the Air," by Richard Dresser, a black comedy about a sure-fire investment; "Mary and Myra," by Catherine Filloux, a play about Mary Todd Lincoln and her friend, Myra Bradwell; and "Hunger," by Sheri Wilner, about desire and longing.

Subscriptions to the four-play season are $75. Call 800-999-2283.

Foot-stomping evenings

Performers will be kickin' it at the Lyric Opera House with two popular shows added to the line-up this spring. "Savion! The Concert" comes to the Lyric for three performances, April 12, 14 and 15. Curtain time is 8 p.m. Directed, choreographed and starring Savion Glover, the program showcases four generations of dancers including tap legends Jimmy Slide, former Baltimorean Buster Brown and Dianne Walker, as well as 10-year-old tap wonder, Cartier Williams. Tickets are $15-$49 and are on sale now.

May 16-20 will mark the fourth Baltimore engagement of "Stomp," the eight-person percussion troupe. Show times are 8 p.m. Tuesday through Friday, 5 p.m. and 9 p.m. Saturday. Tickets are $25-$42.50 and go on sale March 19.

Call 410-494-2712.

`Dinner' with John, Henry

The Kennedy Center in Washington has also added a show to its season. Neil Simon's newest play, "The Dinner Party," will be presented in the Eisenhower Theater June 17-July 16. Set in a private dining room at a Paris restaurant, the play, which debuted in Los Angeles in December, stars John Ritter and Henry Winkler. Call 800-444-1324.

`Caroline' in `Cabaret'

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