by Alicia Anstead
Three Pianos, running through Jan. 8 at American Repertory Theater, is a theatrical explosion of Franz Schubert’s song cycle Winterreise. Filled with fantastical touches and inventive arrangements, the play, by Rick Burkhardt, Alec Duffy and Dave Malloy, is an imaginative evening of chaos, exploring Schubert’s music, life, and times. Set on a blustery winter night, three friends – each manning a piano – lead the audience through fragments of Schubert’s famous work while grappling with fundamental questions about the nature of music and drinking too much. The three pianists slip into a wild reenactment of a "Schubertiad," a musical salon party thrown by Schubert and his friends, connecting the two groups through the centuries. We asked three Harvard Arts Beat bloggers with music backgrounds to respond to Three Pianos. They each saw it, and each heard it through unique musical ears. Their responses follow.
From the start, the three writers (doubling as the performers) of Three Pianos are offering their audience something fresh with their fundamental idea--playing sequentially through a Schubert song cycle, both telling its story and their own in the process. However, the most remarkable quality of the piece is that the creativity does not stop at the concept. The show achieves a comfortable interactive element, addressing the audience directly throughout, and pausing altogether at two points for ushers to offer wine to audience members. The stunning set design of a winter vista, sometimes including falling snow, keeps the Wanderer of Schubert's songs at the center of the action, even as the script meanders through discussions of art, history about Schubert's life, and scenes involving the actors and pianists. A video projector projects Schubert's German lyrics, English translations, or both, depending on the situation, and at one point the actors even use an old-fashioned slide projector to accompany one song with simple pencil drawings. The show could thrive on a minimalistic set; all that is truly necessary are the pianos themselves. But the decision to beautify the stage so intricately while also including multimedia and an interactive aspect offers support, and not distraction, to Three Pianos' music and scenes.
Simon de Carvalho
Three Pianos is an exploration of the power of music that can best be described as whimsical. A set comprised of trees, snow banks, and models of 1800s-style mansions serves as the backdrop for—well—three best friends getting drunk and singing songs. And that, I think, is the point: Winterreise, Schubert’s iconic song-cycle, is really just a bunch of (very beautiful) songs; anyone can enjoy them. The show does its best to bring the accessibility of these songs to the fore, embellishing them with piano acrobatics (imagine one man playing one song on three pianos at the same time), and sometimes breaking down some of the interesting mechanics of Schubert’s music. But through all this, we never lose the sense that the show is still just three guys having a good time with a piece of music. It’s a refreshing and heartwarming evening (especially if you’re over 21 and can take part in the many rounds of wine distributed to the audience!)—just in time for winter.
Three Pianos is most generally about how the experience of Schubert's Wanderer is at once that of Schubert, that of the modern day characters in the play, and also that of everyone in the theater. It also poses some larger questions about the dramatic content of art song. At one point, one of the actors, speaking half to his friends on stage and half to the audience, asks, "What is the difference between opera and song?" The answer he gives explicitly is that opera is about conflict, while song is about interirioty. However, the way that this production is constructed, with songs as commentary on staged drama, and actors commenting on the songs through their interpretation, mandates that on some level this interiority is somehow interpreted as an extroverted dramatic event. At the same time, there is much made in the play of whether the songs require skilled singers or polished performance, and one implicit conclusion reached is that they do not because of their intimate nature. That being said, the songs as sung in Three Pianos were at once public performane and private consumption. The tension between these two things was made stronger by the constant sense that, though the piano playing was more than adept, the singing was not so much about singing as it was about showing that art song could be adapted to their stage, to their voices, to their dramatic purpose - so how one genre (art song) and mode of performance could be bent within the context of another (theater).
[Caption: (From left to right) Dave Malloy, Alec Duffy and Rick Burkhardt in "Three Pianos" at the A.R.T. (photo by Joan Marcus).]