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Philadelphia by Tim Dunleavy

Old Wicked Songs and Plato's Apology

Old Wicked Songs
David Kenner and Keith Baker
Old Wicked Songs, now playing at Bristol Riverside Theatre, tells the story of a crusty teacher, his obstinate student, and the relationship they forge. You might think you know this story already; after all, there been plays and movies galore about polar opposites who are forced to work together, learn how much they have in common, and develop a grudging respect for each other. If you've seen Educating Rita or Driving Miss Daisy, what does Old Wicked Songs have to offer that you haven't seen before?

Quite a lot, actually. Old Wicked Songs isn't just another story about a mismatched pair; it deals with how lives are shaped by major events of politics and history. Jon Marans' play has a serious tone, yet it's never boring; it treats its characters with respect, and the result is a very rewarding piece of work.

Stephen is a twenty-five-year-old Californian who has traveled to Vienna to study piano with the famous Professor Schiller. Once Stephen arrives, he learns that he must first spend three months taking singing lessons from a less illustrious professor, Josef Mashkan. Stephen rebels; why should he study singing if he has no intention of being a singer? But Professor Mashkan argues that the training will make Stephen a better accompanist. And so Stephen practices his scales and sings pieces by Schumann and Puccini, all the while bitterly declaring "As long as I'm here I won't be happy." Meanwhile, Mashkan behaves like an Austrian Simon Cowell, berating Stephen for singing without feeling.

But there's more to Old Wicked Songs than music. It's 1986, and Kurt Waldheim is running for President of Austria, despite shocking revelations of his Nazi past. Waldheim wants to ignore his distasteful background, and so do the Austrian citizens who elect him. But Stephen and the Professor also have histories they've hidden—and how they deal with their own pasts, and how they judge others, is at the crux of this surprising story.

Marans has directed his play with a sensitive touch, and there are fine performances by Keith Baker, who is warm and wily as the professor, and by David Kenner, who is proud and impetuous as the student. (Both actors are also superb pianists, which adds to the realism.) There's an excellent, slightly abstract set by Bill Clarke, Lisa L. Zinni's costumes help depict the moods of the characters well, becoming more casual as the characters grow more comfortable with their situation.

Old Wicked Songs isn't a dazzling work, but it's a subtle play that ends up being quite satisfying.

Old Wicked Songs runs through December 5, 2010, at Bristol Riverside Theatre, 120 Radcliffe Street, Bristol, PA. Ticket are $31, with discounts available for students and groups, and are available by calling the box office at 215-785-0100, online at www.brtstage.org, or by visiting the box office.


In the closing moments of Old Wicked Songs, the teacher gives his student an important piece of advice: "Question. Always question." The great philosopher Socrates gave his students the same advice in the year 399 B.C., instructing them never to be satisfied with simple answers. That advice earned him enemies, and Socrates found himself under arrest, charged with corrupting the youth of Athens. The speech he gave in his defense, as transcribed by his most famous student, makes up Plato's Apology: The Trial of Socrates. It's now being given a well-crafted production by Quintessence Theatre Group.

As played by Sam Tsoutsouvas, Socrates looks like he could use a good scrubbing. He dresses in dingy brown clothes, and he paces barefoot across a wooden stage. He doesn't seem the sort of person that the elders of Athens would be proud of. But you've got to hand it to Socrates—while he may be far from tidy, he is a giant among men. Tsoutsouvas' Socrates knows he's superior to the jurors who sit in judgment of him; he even brags about how the Oracle of Delphi proclaimed that there was no one wiser. Tsoutsouvas successfully explores all sides of Socrates' personality, making him appear sometimes condescending, sometimes ingratiating, sometimes wry, sometimes discouraged. Tsoutsouvas has an authoritative presence, and he makes it clear why Socrates was both loved and feared. He never makes Socrates seem desperate, even as he asks the jurors to "think only of the justness of my cause."

The Apology (in which Socrates, contrary to the term's modern meaning, apologizes for nothing) runs around an hour, and it's nearly all a monologue. At one point Socrates is interrupted by his chief accuser, Meletus, played by Sean Bradley. (Costume designer Jane Casanave has outfitted Bradley in an immaculate business suit, making him appear flush with success. It's an appropriate contrast with the scruffy Socrates.) Alexander Burns' restrained direction focuses on the words, letting nothing get in the way; this is old-fashioned oratory, delivered well. There are occasional sound effects used (rumbling outcries from the jurors), which are distracting at first, but eventually you get used to them.

Despite the solid acting and directing, however, Plato's Apology works on an intellectual level only, not an emotional one. It's not dramatically engaging theater, even though it depicts a trial in which a man's life is on the line. Some viewers may have a hard time staying involved in the hour-long speech, no matter how fine the acting. And Quintessence's home at the Sedgwick Theater, with its too-bright lighting and a high ceiling that often swallows the actors' words, does not reward concentration. But fans of fine classical acting will find Tsoutsouvas' rich, varied performance reason enough to enjoy this production.

Plato's Apology: The Trial of Socrates runs through December 5, 2010, and is presented by Quintessence Theatre Group at Sedgwick Theater, 7137 Germantown Ave. Ticket prices are $30, with discounts available for students and seniors, and are available online at www.QuintessenceTheatre.org, or by visiting the box office.


-- Tim Dunleavy



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