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Old Wicked Songs
by Jon Marans
Directed by Tim Ocel
New Jewish Theatre
March 17, 2016

 

Jerry Vogel, Will Bonfiglio Photo by Eric Woolsey New Jewish Theatre

Jerry Vogel, Will Bonfiglio
Photo by Eric Woolsey
New Jewish Theatre

Old Wicked Songs is a story of a teacher and a student who are ostensibly here to study music, but who learn much more than that as their relationship progresses. It’s a play I hadn’t seen before, but am very glad now to have been given that opportunity by means of the current production from New Jewish Theatre.  It’s a superbly cast production, and it’s not to be missed.

The story takes place at the studio of music professor Josef Mashkan (Jerry Vogel) in Vienna, Austria in 1986. A young American piano student, Stephen Hoffman (Will Bonfiglio) has just arrived in the country with the intention of studying to become an accompanist. Stephen isn’t happy when he finds out that Mashkan isn’t the piano professor, but a singing teacher, and Stephen must study singing for three months before he can begin his piano instruction with the professor from whom he had wished to learn. The initially defensive, guarded Stephen is suspicious of the more demanding Mashkan at first, and this first meeting begins a series of instruction sessions and a relationship that will eventually change the lives of both men, who both have secrets they wish to hide.  They’re studying Robert Schumann’s song cycle Dichterliebe, with lyrics by the poet Heinrich Heine. Through the course of playing, singing, and discussing the songs and their meanings, as well as events in their own lives and the history of Vienna, Austria, and neighboring Germany, the two men learn more about each other and learn that there is more to both of them than they had initially thought. This all takes place against a backdrop of political controversy in Austria as Kurt Waldheim, whose military service in the German army during World War II was being called into question internationally.  Austria’s attitudes toward its own history involving the Nazi regime, as well as the memory of the Holocaust and its effect on those who have survived as well as the generations born after the war, become major issues in the play, as both Stephen and Mashkan’s personal stories eventually reveal.

This is an intensely personal play, and the love of music and poetry pervades it. The relationship between music and emotion, as well as joy and sadness, is emphasized by Mashkan, and both his life and Stephen’s directly illustrate that relationship as the story unfolds. The two actors here are perfectly cast. Vogel portrays the joy and the sadness of Mashkan’s life, as well as his deep love of music, with vivid clarity in a sensitive, engaging and at times heartbreaking performance. Bonfiglio is equally brilliant as Stephen, whose emotional journey throughout the play is clearly portrayed on Bonfiglio’s expressive face. Both actors display strong voices, as well, singing the songs with energy and passion, in English as well as German as the story’s progression necessitates.

As usual for New Jewish Theatre, the technical aspects of this production are also excellent. The set by Dunsi Dai is richly detailed, bringing a sense of authenticity to this representation of a music professor’s studio in an aging building. The costumes, by Michele Friedman Siler, suit the characters well, and Stephen’s clothes in particular serve to reflect his character’s growth throughout the course of the play. There’s also strong, atmospheric lighting by Maureen Berry and excellent sound design by Robin Wetherall.

This is a play about a student and a teacher, but it’s about a lot more than that. It’s about a love of music and song, and also about joy, regret, secrets and the importance of communication, as well as a person’s relationship with culture and history. It’s an expertly crafted play that presents characters with well-realized life stories that are memorably portrayed by two excellent actors at their finest. It’s the best production I’ve seen in St. Louis so far this year.

Jerry Vogel, Will Bonfiglio Photo by Eric Woolsey New Jewish Theatre

Jerry Vogel, Will Bonfiglio
Photo by Eric Woolsey
New Jewish Theatre

New Jewish Theatre is presenting Old Wicked Songs at the Marvin & Harlene Wool Studio Theatre at the JCC’s Staenberg Family Complex until April 3, 2016.

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