Three Pianos, currently playing at the American Repertory Theater in Cambridge, is another successful production in line with the theatrical proclivities of artistic director Diane Paulus—theatrical mastery, audience engagement, crisp production values, meaningful content (and context,) and the delivery of an evening out that is both fun and informatively rich.
Paulus has demonstrated a deft hand at finding ways to present existing works of art with a new front end. In Gatz, The Great Gatsby is given a streamlined, ironic and contemporary face. Sleep No More offers up Macbeth as a dreamlike and myth-laden tale. The Donkey Show finds a sweet spot in the disco era for Midsummer Night’s Dream. Productions of canonical works, like Porgy and Bess and Cabaret, are framed bravely within more contemporary memes.
This is not an approach unique to ART or to Paulus. Shakespeare is so fluid that many productions easily move his plays into a variety of historical eras. (Recent productions of All’s Well that Ends Well and Othello by Shakespeare on the Common come to mind.) And Mabou Mines’ recent production of A Doll’s House shifted the experience of Ibsen’s play inexorably by simply casting dwarfs to play all the male characters.
In the case of Three Pianos, the work of art at the heart of the production is Winterreise (Winter Journey), the extraordinary song cycle by Franz Schubert. From that set of 24 songs written in the last year of Schubert’s short life (he died at 31), an entire era is recreated—the political repression in Vienna, the absence of artistic patronage, the brotherhood of artists, the emergence of new forms of the romantic poem and song writing. At gatherings of likeminded artists with Schubert at the center (called Schubertiades by Schubert’s close friends), the concept of the salon was adapted for a more subversive clientele. Poetry, music, camaraderie and ribald adventure came together in a participatory and collaborative way. Rick Burkhardt, Alec Duffy and Dave Malloy have stepped back into that form and created a theatrical event that pays a very heartfelt homage to Schubert, his music and his circle.
Offering every audience member a drink upon arrival as well as continuously throughout the production may sound like a fey device. But it isn’t. Boundaries between the audience and the stage fade as these three actor/musicians take us through the songs of the cycle. There are moments in this journey that are as musically informative as a lecture by Robert Greenberg. The ability to keep the flow fresh and engaging feels well worked, carefully honed and delivered. As characterizations bounce back and forth effortlessly between current time and the early 1800s, the similarities as well as differences in these two eras start to take form. Lots of relevant topics come up in this fast paced production like how should artistic works of the past be accessed, the difference between high brow vs low brow art forms, the constraints of canonical narrowness, the importance of context, how any work of art comes to reflect our own cultural proclivities. And little known facts as well. Who knew the portly Schubert was nicknamed Schwammerl (mushroom)—by his friends?
What’s more, the set is visually lush. The stage is full of iconic references—a miniature house, leafless trees, a graveyard (and other landscape features described in the poems of the song cycle), with pianos that move about freely to form a bar, a prison, a bed, a coffin.
I share my birthday with Schubert. Even as a small child I felt a connection with him and his music. We grew up singing Schubert lieder, and Winterreise was always one of my favorites. The next time we gather to sing that cycle, it will feel substantially different to me—richer, more nuanced, even more personal.
The production runs through January 8.