nytheatre.com review by Martin Denton
December 18, 2010
The three men who wrote, arranged, and perform Three Pianos are indubitably indie theater all-stars. Rick Burkhardt is part of The Nonsense Company, whose NYC debut a couple of years ago—Great Hymn of Thanksgiving / Conversation Storm—revealed him to be an astonishingly skillful musician, playwright, performer, and thinker. Playwright/director Alec Duffy's insightful The Top Ten People of the Millennium Sing Their Favorite Schubert Lieder, among other works, presages many of the themes of this piece. Dave Malloy—self-described "music guy" for the anarchic theatre troupe Banana Bag & Bodice—is a creator, performer, and purveyor of work that challenges norms and expectations.
The story goes that they met at a party at Judson Memorial Church, came across the score of Franz Schubert's Winterreise, and wound up—aided by some alcohol, high spirits, and a shared abiding love for the music—performing the entire 24-part song cycle impromptu. From that came the idea to do the same thing for an audience. Three Pianos preserves all of these contributory elements: there's a delightful spontaneity and sense of surprise even though the piece is clearly scripted and rehearsed; and both music and wine flow freely and generously from the stage. (Wine is served before and during the show. It's free. Don't let it be the only reason you come.)
True to their own diverse theatrical histories/visions, Burkhardt, Duffy, and Malloy deftly manage to entertain, enlighten, jolt, shake up, and delight their audience. Three Pianos is hardly a straightforward rendition of Winterreise, but if, like me, you're not familiar with the work, then you'll leave with a hearty appreciation for it; you won't hear all of it (parts are abridged and even skipped), but you'll feel immersed in its moods, themes, and styles. You'll also explore, with these three pianists as your guides, the life of Franz Schubert, the drama of creation, the history of musical composition as a viable vocation, and the implications of being an artist in a society hostile to innovation and individual expression. Fascinating stuff.
I was particularly interested to learn about Schubert. The material about his life is presented, playfully but thoughtfully, in the form of a Schubertiad, as re-created by Burkhardt, Duffy, and Malloy. (A Schubertiad was a private party where Schubert would play his music for his friends.)
All three of our pianists are accomplished musicians, capable of Victor Borge-like keyboard clowning; Malloy also plays the accordion at one point and Duffy plays the saxophone. All three sing beautifully as well. The music's enduring potency is the constant in a performance that is otherwise full of surprise and reinvention.
There are a few technical missteps. Translations of the German lyrics (by poet Wilhelm Muller) are projected on a framed screen overhanging stage left. I was almost never able to read them: the combination of the viewing angle (from my seat at far house left) and the poor contrast of white writing on a dark grey background made it difficult to see in focus. Although the performers do a splendid job explaining the songs in Winterreise and the music is certainly evocative on its own, when the singing was in German I felt I missed something because I couldn't read the supertitles. I also found director Rachel Chavkin's constant repositioning of the three pianos on stage extremely distracting—it felt like after every song, the performers would wheel the pianos into new locations, generally for no clear reason. And a couple of times the show was interrupted by delivery of new bottles of wine to the audience, which was also a severe distraction. A proscenium theatre with long rows of audience seating (and no center aisles) is a less-than-ideal configuration for handing out drinks.
But these are quibbles, and ultimately they didn't hurt the piece for me. Three Pianos is a fascinating, quirky, fun, and informative entertainment. It's exciting to see these three indie theater creators working together. I'm excited to see what they'll each do next.