Three Pianos

by Robert Nesti

EDGE National Arts & Entertainment Editor

Sunday December 18, 2011

Dave Malloy, Alec Duffy and Rick Burkhardt in "Three Pianos"
Dave Malloy, Alec Duffy and Rick Burkhardt in "Three Pianos"  

Watching "Three Pianos" at the American Repertory Theater, it's hard not to think of the Reduced Shakespeare Company, the three-man company that offers snarky looks at such subjects as the plays of Shakespeare, American history and the Bible. The three-man cast of this performance piece (Rick Burkhardt, Alec Duffy and Dave Malloy) take a similarly irreverent approach, but with a piece of music: Franz Schubert's song cycle "Winterreise," which they celebrate in a fusion of a beer bash and music appreciation class.

"Winterreise" is an odd choice for a two-hour, intermission-less entertainment. As it is pointed out early on, Schubert's 24-song cycle is, well, depressing and doesn't have much of a plot. Adapted from poems by Wilhelm Müller, the composer's friend and colleague, the songs follow the journey of a poet, heartbroken at losing his lover to another, across a wintry landscape. Nothing much happens on his lonely trek, save he cries a lot, dreams of springtime and is barked at by some dogs as he wanders near a village.

The precedent for the work is what was called a Schubertiade, informal gatherings of friends during the composer's life in which his music - such as these songs - would be played. Apparently Schubert, we are told, liked to do two things - write music, for which he composed a copious amount during his brief life, and party, which from the sounds of things, he loved to do.

Burkhardt, Duffy and Malloy provide this and other bits of biographical information, stating rather emphatically that Schubert was gay, had trouble with the law and slept around. (We learn that he died at 31 from syphilis.) They pretty much considered him an outsider, echoing the words of contemporary musical historian Joseph Horowitz: "His bohemian marginality signified not reticence but stubborn independence: freedom from familial constraint and social convention."

Dave Malloy, Alec Duffy and Rick Burkhardt in "Three Pianos"
Dave Malloy, Alec Duffy and Rick Burkhardt in "Three Pianos"  

What the evening turns out to be is their take on a Schubertiade, even at one point time-tripping back to Vienna to recreate one such event involving the composer and "his crazy poet friends" - an all-nighter in which the composer's friends get together to talk (and talk) and drink (and drink) and sing his ?"Winterreise."

These songs offer a framework to the entertainment, though there's nothing formal about their presentation. No recitalist steps forwards to sing them - in fact (save for, I think, one), none are sung in their entirety, while others (the ones they not partial to) are passed over. And when they sing, it is with the slacker slumber party tone, which is laid-back, a bit ironic, humorously evoking popular contemporary styles - pop, jazz, rock in their performance.

It somehow works. You get the impression that if Schubert were to wander in the Loeb today, he would relish this approach, which is part of the reason why "Three Pianos" has such appeal - the mix of mixology and musicology is oddly endearing.

The three hosts even serve alcohol as ushers visit the audience with trays of red wine or sparkling cider before and during the performance. (One lucky guy even got to do Tequila shots.) As they ramble through the songs, the three pull out bottles of brandy, whisky and other inebriates, drinking them as they talk and sing, as if at an all-night party. (When they run out of booze, someone makes a beer run.)

Their enthusiasm for these Schubert songs cannot be denied, though you also feel that they are a bit over-emphatic in their crusade to win the audiences' hearts and minds. There are moments that feel like being locked in a room of "Star Wars" fans that want you to share in their fandom.

What turns out to be missing is the wonder of the songs themselves because we never really hear them as written. This isn't a master class; it's more an after school special with la vie Boheme. The performers - each charming in their own way - make a case for how Schubert relates to the contemporary listener, these songs in particular, which are a bit like a soundtrack to an indie movie about a heartbroken slacker. At various times, Malloy even takes that role, as if despondent in a therapy session.

The three pianos referenced in the title are battered uprights that the men push about the stage in a kind-of ambulatory zeal. The configurations that director Rachel Chavkin has them take are worthy of Busby Berkeley; somehow they manage to keep them from banging into elements of Andreea Mincic's cluttered, eclectic set, which is replete with neon tubes that enhance the chilly scenes of winter the songs evoke.

At first I was afraid that the show would be Schubert for Dummies; fortunately it's far from it. Not knowing all that much about Schubert I came away informed and curious, which may be what his emphatic cheerleaders want us to be. And, hey, if they want to turn Schubert into a household name, perhaps they should convince Lady Gaga to do a few dance remixes.

"Three Pianos" runs through January 8, 2012 at the Loeb Drama Center, 64 Brattle Street, Cambridge, MA. For more information, visit the American Repertory Theater website.

Robert Nesti can be reached at [email protected].