Oddly enough, the best antidote to winter’s bitter dregs might be a 19th-century outcast’s desolate wanderings through a frozen night. Three Pianos, a loosey-goosey adaptation of Schubert’s bleak Winterreise song cycle—collaboratively created by Rick Burkhardt, Alec Duffy, and Dave Malloy—warms spectators at the hearth of musical enthusiasm.
Casting us as guests at a present-day “Schubertiad”—epic boozefests where the composer and his bohemian friends debuted new works—the trio sing and argue through the 24-part cycle, sometimes playing themselves, sometimes impersonating Schubert and his buddies (liberal helpings of free wine are distributed throughout).
Soon, tonight’s party and its 19th-century predecessor blur together: The performers’ depressive symptoms are juxtaposed with their Romantic ancestors’ febrile melancholy; a grumpy Austrian poet goes on a beer run, and, echoing Winterreise‘s lonely traveler, never returns. The actors interrupt the music—sung alternately in German and idiosyncratic English versions—to present digressive disquisitions on Schubert’s career, or quirky glosses on the songs’ meanings.
Director Rachel Chavkin matches musical virtuosity with stunning pictures: The titular pianos, fallboards flapping like mouths, appear to sing about the journey from inspiration to composition.
Like being cozily tucked away with a clutch of nerdy music-loving friends, Pianos transforms Winterreise‘s spectral solitudes into a parable of artistic community.