Old Wicked Songs

By staff July 17, 2009

The Banyan visits Vienna's past with Old Wicked Songs. 


By Kay Kipling


The bond between teacher and student is one frequently explored on stage and in film and literature, but it still seems to provide fertile ground despite being well plowed. The latest example locally: the Banyan Theater Company’s Old Wicked Songs by Jon Marans (who also directed this production.)

In this case the student, Steven Hoffman (Ken Ferrigni), is a tense and apparently arrogant 25-year-old piano prodigy whose burnout has reached the level where he can no longer play in public. A Viennese music professor sends him to yet another Viennese teacher, Mashkan (Kenneth Tigar), this one a vocal coach. The plan is for Mashkan to get Steven (or Stefan, as he insists on calling him) to sing himself, learning to loose the emotions within so that he can properly accompany singers and, in the end, find something for himself in the world of music that he has lost.

 Ken Ferrigni and Kenneth Tigar in Old Wicked Songs.

The specific key to unlocking Steven’s cage is Robert Schumann’s song cycle Dichterliebe, bits of which are heard throughout and used effectively to advance the story and the characters’ relationship.We hear the music both live and recorded from the moment we enter Mashkan’s studio (a properly old-fashioned Viennese atmosphere here), and it sets the tone for an evening that has more than a touch of Weltschmerz to it.

The backdrop of the play, what’s taking place outside that room, is the 1986 Austrian election of Kurt Waldheim, whose suspected Nazi past roused unpleasant memories for the country and the world. Steven, we eventually learn, is Jewish, and when the young man returns from a trip to Dachau, he explodes at his music teacher, who has uttered several anti-Semitic slurs in his presence. But there’s more to Mashkan—and to Steven—than meets the eye; I won’t give away exactly what, although you might guess it for yourself.


That is perhaps the flaw in Old Wicked Songs, which was nominated for a Pulitzer in the ’90s; despite the playwright’s skill with dialogue and character and the way the music matches the scenes and the mood, the story does feel familiar and somewhat predictable. We’ve all seen a number of artistic works dealing with Nazis and the Holocaust, and it becomes harder over time to fictionalize in a way that can impact us nearly as much as the grim reality of say, a visit to a Holocaust museum, for example.


But Old Wicked Songs is helped greatly by the performances of Tigar and Ferrigni, especially Tigar. Both actors give fine, sympathetic performances; Tigar portrays Mashkan with a zest and a carefully calibrated balance between Marans’ humor and drama that makes him unique, not just a type.


Old Wicked Songs continues through Aug 2 at the Cook Theater; for tickets call 552-1032 or visit  
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