Jon Marans' Old Wicked Songs is a Well-Crafted Proficient Drama
Old Wicked Songs premiered at the Promenade Theatre in 1996 with Hal Robinson playing Professor Josef Mashkan and Justin Kirk playing the student Stephen Hoffman. I saw these two perform the roles at the Geffen Playhouse in 1997. The middlebrow play had its English premiere at the Gielgud Theatre the same year with Bob Hoskins playing the teacher and James Callis playing the student. The San Jose Rep did a sterling production during its 1997-1998 season.
Jon Marans' drama is fiercely played by two very competent actors. Mark Farrell (Noel and Gertie, Around the World and Splittin' the Raft and winner of SFBATCC Award) and Jarion Monroe are excellent in their roles. The play contains conflicts between the old professor and the young recalcitrant student whose bright career as a piano prodigy has ground to a sudden halt.
It will certainly help if you are a classical music aficionado, since much of the discussion is centered around Robert Schumann's Dichterliebe song cycle for voice and piano. The drama is political in nature and takes place in Vienna in 1986 when ex-Nazi Kurt Waldheim's was running for the president of his country. The trump card of this two-hour drama is the Holocaust and the fact that the student is Jewish.
Professor Josef Mashkan (Jarion Monroe), who has very few students, welcomes a stiff, headstrong American student Stephen Hoffman (Mark Farrell) who declares himself a Protestant to hide his Jewish faith. Mashkan also hides being a Jew and portentously says, "Why does everyone harp on the Jews?" Stephen becomes angry after visiting Dachau and seeing how the Germans have white washed the deadly concentration camp. The emotional payoff happens when Stephen confronts the professor for his anti-Semitic remarks. Secrets are revealed by both during this rousing confrontation at the end of the play.
Monroe (well known Bay Area actor) is strong as the eccentric and cantankerous professor. He comes on like gangbusters in the first act and seems to overpower the acting of Farrell. There is an uneven balance between the two, though Farrell comes into his own in the second act and displays great dramatic ability after Stephen returns from the German death camp. The young student holds his own against the professor in the poignant war of words scenes.
Steve Coleman's set looks like a scene from a Franz Lehar operetta. There is even the skyline of Vienna at the rear of the set. Jeff Mockus' sound is superb using a computer player piano that works right on cue. Brandon Adams' musical direction is right on the mark. Barbara Damashek's direction is as poetic and musical as the text.
Old Wicked Songs runs through April 16 at the Marin Theatre Company, 397 Miller Ave, Mill Valley. For tickets please call 415-388-5208 or visit www.marintheatre.org.
The Marin Theatre's next production will be the world premiere of Displaced, opening on May 11 and running through June 11th.