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The Detroit News Review
  - Thursday, October 18, 2007

is music
to the soul

By Lawrence B. Johnson

Daniel Kahn answers with a well-gauged progression from presumptuous smart-aleck to understanding -- about breath and life and the profound possibilities that both imply.

"Old Wicked Songs" by Jon Marans
directed by Evelyn Orbach
with Max Wright & Daniel Kahn

Tony Award Nominee Max Wright

Tony Award Nominee

Those sad lyrics are best buried, those old songs of love lost and pain past endurance. Those old wicked songs.

That poignantly spun phrase was coined by the 19th-century German poet Heinrich Heine, though devotees of art song more likely associate it with Robert Schumann's setting of Heine's verses in a cycle called "Dichterliebe," or "Poet's Love."

Observing Heine's words through the exquisite prism of Schumann's music, playwright Jon Marans beheld the whole of human suffering and asked: What does it mean to live with scars on the heart, the soul, the body -- not merely to survive, but truly to live once more?

Marans came up with a layered but essentially optimistic answer in his 1996 play "Old Wicked Songs," which has remained vividly with me since I saw it in London's West End shortly after the premiere. Now the Jewish Ensemble Theatre has re-created this two-man show with all the wit, edge and ambiguity that made such an impression when the play was new.

The premise is straightforward enough. In 1986, a brilliant young American pianist goes to study accompaniment with an elderly, rather eccentric teacher in Vienna called Josef Mashkan. Actually, the pianist, Stephen Hoffman, is there against his wishes. The master he really wants to work with has insisted he spend some time first with Mashkan. But the larger reason the kid is there at all is that he's burned out, his artistic drive, his ability to practice, the joy of music itself, all gone.

Schumann's "Dichterliebe" is open on the piano, so Mashkan suggests they start with that. However, to his surprise and annoyance, the pianist isn't invited to play, but to sing. And so begins a contentious venture in which the uptight young American learns about breathing and the breath of life -- and in turn forces his teacher to face his own secret torment.

As the addled but earnest teacher, Max Wright offers a performance that's richly textured, funny and wise. And Daniel Kahn answers with a well-gauged progression from presumptuous smart-aleck to understanding -- about breath and life and the profound possibilities that both imply.

Evelyn Orbach, JET's founding artistic director, directs this show. Only when you stop to consider its seamless, effortless fluidity does her invisible hand reveal itself.

Lawrence B. Johnson is a Detroit-based cultural writer and critic. You can reach him at

Free Press 10/18/07 

Old Wicked Songs

"* * * *"
 Out of four stars

Daniel Kahn and Max Wright in Evelyn Orbach’s Jewish Ensemble Theatre production, they overfill the stage and aim right for the audience’s minds and hearts.

Pair grips past in city of lies

By Martin F. Kohn   Free Press Theater Critic

Vienna is all a lie, says Stephen Hoffman. 
Begin with the famously blue Danube It isn’t blue.
 It’s brown, and doesn’t even run through the city.

            Stephen, an American, is in Vienna seeking help for what ails him. A concert pianist, he has lost his will to play. Although this is the city where Sigmund Freud once practiced, Stephen hasn’t come to see a doctor but a music teacher, one Josef Mashkan.

Shtefan and Mashkan (that’s what they call each other) are the entire population of Jon Marans’ play “Old Wicked Songs.” As played, respectively, by Daniel Kahn and Max Wright in Evelyn Orbach’s Jewish Ensemble Theatre production, they overfill the stage and aim right for the audience’s minds and hearts.

Not right away, though, and not obviously. Whatever the opposite of “glib” might be, this play is it.

There is more going on than music lessons. Marans’ play is about understanding, about identity, about connecting with suppressed emotions and coming to grips with the past. The play is set in 1986, with memories of the holocaust still very much alive.


5/3/2007 JN-Jewish News Arts & Entertainment

Daniel Kahn and the Painted Bird

ARTS: Out and About- May 3, 2007

Gail Zimmerman
Arts & Entertainment Editor

Notes From Ann Arbor


Detroit-area native Daniel Kahn moved to Berlin in the summer of 2005. In the fall of that year, he formed the Painted Bird, a band named for the infamous book by Jerzy Kosinski. Featuring a rotating roster of some of Berlin and New York's best young klezmer and Balkan players, the ensemble performs a combination of political cabaret, radical Yiddish song, American punk folk and klezmer - fronted by singer-songwriter Kahn on vocals, accordion and piano; U.S. expat composer Michael Tuttle on upright bass and Swedish drummer Hampus Melin.

In the summer of 2006, the band completed its debut album, The Broken Tongue, the fifth CD of original music Kahn has produced but one marking a shift from indie folk to klezmer-based music. It includes a number of songs in Yiddish, and one - a Bertolt Brecht piece - in German.

At the University of Michigan, Kahn studied acting, directing, playwriting and poetry, winning U-M's most prestigious writing award, the Hopwood, three times and publishing Daylight Savings, a collection of his poems, with Ornithology Press. After graduating and traveling, he moved to New Orleans in 2001 to focus on music and theater. There he played everything from late-night piano lounge lizard gigs to bluegrass jams, eventually directing, producing, acting and composing music for a well-received production of Brecht's Man Is Man.

After leaving New Orleans, he settled in New York, soon to be lured back to Michigan to write and perform music - for Planet Ant's Lehrstucke, Ann Arbor Performance Network's Threepenny Opera and Jewish Ensemble Theatre's The Dybbuk (for which he won a 2004 OPIE for his musical score). He released his experimental folk rock Detroit CD, Uprooted Oak, in 2005 and helps produce a folk fest every fall on a farm in northern Michigan.

Now an integral part of Berlin's folk and klezmer scene, Kahn plays in some seven different groups and musical projects and tours mostly around Europe. He returns to play his home state 8 p.m. Thursday, May 10, at Ann Arbor's Kerrytown Concert House, 415 N. Fourth Ave. Breathe Owl Breathe, an earthy Michigan duo with roots in indie, classical and traditional music, opens for Daniel Kahn and the Painted Bird. Tickets are $10 general admission and $5 students. Reservations are recommended; call (734) 769-2999 or go to


It's OPie time!  
Annual theater awards salute a year packed with talent

Daniel Kahn - Nominated for Best Musical Performance

....Daniel Kahn mastered the accordion for two Bertolt Brecht message plays: Planet Ant's "Lehrstucke" and Performance Network's "The Threepenny Opera."

Detroit Metro Times
by Eve Doster

"Dan Kahn is the hottest damn songwriter you've never heard of. Like Dr. John meets Leon Redbone, with the soul of John Sinclair, Kahn is not only an amazing multi-instrumentalist/playwright/poet, he also typifies the youthful ethos that reminds us that music without heart is just a bunch of noise."



Planet Ant offers a lesson in Brecht

November 4, 2003

It's a pretty good month to be a dead German playwright in Detroit. Planet Ant Theatre is doing its take on four of Bertolt Brecht's "Lehrstucke ('The Learning Plays)" while on the other side of town Zeitgeist Theatre presents its spin on a play by Brecht's disciple Heiner Mueller.

'Lehrstucke (The Learning Plays)'
out of 4 stars

8 p.m. Friday-Saturday
2 p.m. Sunday

Through Nov. 23

Planet Ant Theatre
2357 Caniff, Hamtramck


$15, $10 students

1 hour, 30 minutes

Both productions have much to recommend them.

Director Eric W. Maher has selected four of Brecht's fable-like "Learning Plays" and the five cast members -- Jocelyn Fekel, Jen House, Dan Kahn, Charles Reynolds and Steve Sabaugh -- act with spirit and conviction.

The plays are supplemented with original music by Kahn, who sings and accompanies the company on some dozen different instruments including piano, accordion, guitar and mandolin. It's all very "Threepenny Opera," and in the Brechtian tone of crossing boundaries between performer and audience, Kahn begins the evening by singing "Turn off your cell phones," to the tune of "Hava Nagila."

The major piece of the evening is "The Exception and the Rule," the tale of a greedy merchant's journey across the desert in pursuit of business. He mistreats his guide and abuses his bearer, the poor fellow who carries all the supplies. An indictment of capitalism -- Brecht never was one for subtlety -- the play decries the exploitation of both mankind and natural resources; its talk about drilling for oil seems especially up-to-date.

Humankind comes off no better in the three shorter plays. In "The Yes Sayer" and "Does Man Help Man?" an unfortunate victim meets a very sad end, just as in "The Exception" But "The No Sayer" is "The Yes Sayer" with a happy ending. It is the program's shortest play.

"Lehrstucke" is rarely performed, and so vigorous and inventive a production is probably rarer still.

Excerpted from THE DETROIT FREE PRESS Oct. 23, 2003  

Message is smartly clear
at JET's 'Romeo'


The air is filled with music; the streets are stained with blood.
Before a word is spoken in Jewish Ensemble Theatre's new production,
the audience understands something of the polarities of "Romeo and Juliet."

"Tybalt -- the quickest to draw a sword and the least reluctant to use it -- is also a musician. Tybalt (Daniel Kahn, who composed the opening song) plays a bouzouki-like stringed instrument for the dancers at the Capulets' party."

By David Cuthbert   Theater writer
The New Orleans Times-Picayune
Brecht's anarchic spirit turns up in lark at the By David Cuthbert  
Theater writer/The Times-Picayune

There's no happier experience for me than hauling my tired old keester off to some obscure theater space for a production that turns out to be so much more than expected.

Bertolt Brecht's "Man is Man" at the A.R.K. gets it right: the German-born playwright's timeless theme of military manipulation of the common man and his famous alienation effect, which calls attention to the fact that what you're watching is only theater so that your intellect -- and not your emotion -- is engaged. The play's theatricality and playful, anarchic spirit prevail throughout. It was a warm night and the A.R.K. has no air-conditioning, just fans, but it didn't matter. It was exhilarating.

This is Eric Bentley's 1962 adaptation of Brecht's 1926 piece in which he first tried his "epic theater" approach of social-political drama as episodic, ironic, populist entertainment. Ideas dominate here, and the message is put across in a coarsely comic, presentational style of sardonic song, mock jingoism and announcements telling the audience what is about to happen.

Using the framing device of a recruitment play for His Majesty's Imperial Indian Army, "Man is Man" tells the story of Galy Gay, a trusting, good-hearted young simpleton who goes off to buy a fish for dinner and is bamboozled into the Army, brainwashed into believing that he is someone else and ultimately becomes a "human fighting machine." After all, "one man is no man" and all men are interchangeable peas in the great militant pod, robbed of identity and individuality, succumbing to the siren song of relinquished selfhood.

Where to begin telling you of the rag-tag, squalid splendors of this strikingly strident evening?

The company is mostly young and totally committed to the dark, derisive daffiness at hand. Bracingly directed with mocking wit and bawdy brio by Daniel Kahn and Sarah Clifford, it features Kahn at the piano and accordion, playing his own Kurt Weill-Frederick Hollander-influenced score, with one actual Weill melody, "The Cannon Song" from "The Threepenny Opera," matched with a Brecht poem. Kahn provides not only songs but underscoring as well, and serves as our wild-eyed recruiter-emcee. His tatty, talented cabaret band includes Jessie Smith, an impassive-aggressive drummer; Anikka Lachman, perched atop the upright piano, on violin; ukulele player Sienna O'Bannion; and Michael Tuttle on bass, all doubling in small roles in the play.

Adam Haver is perfection as Galy Gay, the baby-faced boob turned blood-thirsty beast. Kevin Fricke barks, snarls and roars his way through the role of Sgt. Bloody Five, he of the gross appetites and outrageous costuming (a Union Jack eyepatch and increasingly outsized phallus). Claudia Baumgarten's pragmatic, whiskey wagoneer Widow Begbeck, who sells both booze and sex, is a precursor to some of Brecht's most famous characters: Pirate Jenny (from "The Threepenny Opera") and Mother Courage (from "Mother Courage and Her Children"). Bryan "Spitz"faden makes a merrily malevolent Baker, ringleader of the soldier-tricksters Shelly (played by lean, mean Arthur Fischer) and Mahoney (hearty Keith Massey). One would like to have seen more of Christopher Blum's antic Jeriah Jip, but then, he's the missing soldier Galy is pressed into impersonating.

Brother Clit's anguished Mrs. Gay, Joel Davis' tech design with concentration camp-type follow spot, and Lexi Kiel-Wernsen's thrift shop/Army surplus costuming add further layers of chaotic harmony to this invigorating staging.



What: Bertolt Brecht's play, produced by the A.R.K. Collective and directed by Daniel Kahn and Sarah Clifford. Where: The A.R.K., 511 Marigny St. 
When: Opened May 9th Thursday-Saturday at 8 p.m. Extended through June 1st. 
Tickets: $10 Friday-Saturday, "pay what you can" on Thursday. Call 566-7989 or 947-0982.

Gambit Magazine -
New Orleans


05 21 02

Brechtian Ballistics

WHAT: Man Is Man
DIRECTOR: Daniel Kahn and Sarah Clifford  STARRING: Starring Claudia Baumgarten, Kevin Fricke        WHEN: 8 p.m. Thursday-Saturday, 5/9-6/1 WHERE: A.R.K. Theatre, 511 Marigny St., 947-0982

Galy Gay (Adam Haver) hashes things
out with the elephant (Brian Spitzfaden
and Keith Massey) in Man Is Man.
The reappearance of Bertolt Brecht on a local stage (in any incarnation other than the Three Penny Opera) is so rare as to be startling. Perhaps the wave of belligerent patriotism that arose like a tsunami in reaction to 9/11 has, through some arcane law of psycho-dynamics, called up a counter force of skeptical pacifism.

Man Is Man, currently on the boards in a spirited and engaging production at the A.R.K., dates from the mid 1920s. Brecht had not yet formally joined the Communist Party, but he was certainly well on his way to being "born again" in the Marxist faith.

The play is a fable. It pulses with the vigor and freedom that makes Brecht's theater so appealing. But it's a bizarre, confused fable -- infected, perhaps, with a virus of Weimar decadence.

The mood at the ragtag A.R.K. is perfect -- more perfect, I suspect, than any of Brecht's own productions in which his signature grittiness was generated in some very well-heeled, prestigious establishments. Off to one side of the stage, at an upright piano sits Daniel Kahn, in army khakis. Kahn, who wrote the music and co-directed the play (with Sarah Clifford), also acts as MC in the persona of Sgt. Solly Schmidt of His Majesty George the Second's India Corps. Sitting on and around the piano are assorted camp followers who make up the band. Kahn's music is appealing and evocative, as is the deliberately rinky-dink set with its scarlet curtain, bare light bulb and stretched sheet for projected titles.

Galy Gay (Adam Haver) is the hero of the tale. He is an innocuous riverfront porter in Kilkoa -- a man whose major virtue is that he has "very few vices." One day, he sets out to buy a fish for supper, leaving his wife (Brother Clit, according the playbill) heating up a pot of water to cook it in. Meanwhile, an army machine-gun unit (Michael Tuttle, Arthur Fisher, Christopher Blum, Brian Spitzfaden and Keith Massey) set about looting a native shrine, the Pagoda of the Crimson God (what pagodas are doing in India is unclear). They are repulsed, and as they flee, one of their number -- Jeriah Jip, by name -- leaves a large swatch of his hair behind on the pagoda gate. Jip, a drunkard, is deposited in a large basket and left there unconscious.

The commanding officer (an amusingly explosive Kevin Fricke) is a hell-for-leather sex maniac and sanguinary martinet given the sobriquet "Bloody Five" in honor of his most heroic exploit: the murder of five enemy prisoners. Bloody Five will wreak horrible retribution on the looters if he can find them, and he knows one of the looters must have a newly acquired bald spot.

The machine gunners meet Galy Gay and, realizing he is incapable of saying "no," bully him into taking the place of the missing Jeriah Jip. During the rest of the play, Galy Gay gradually becomes convinced he is the man he's been impersonating. Meanwhile, the enterprising widow Begbick (a radiant Claudia Baumgarten) and her daughters (Sienna, Jessie and Anikka Lachman) keep the troops entertained. There is a long episode about a fraudulent elephant (Brian Spitzfaden and Keith Massey in costume) and Bloody Five, in a fit of morbid self doubt, castrates himself.

What is one to make of it all? Well, one of the straw men that Brecht is obviously taking his agit-prop ax to is the idea of human nature. General concepts of this sort are anathema to a Marxist. Man is not Man -- he is what society makes him. In this case, a nice porter transmogrifies into an aggressive warrior. The trouble, for me, is that the transmogrification is so broadly portrayed as to be senseless, unless we are to take it that we are all Galy Gays, pursuing our own little goals, but so utterly lacking in inner direction that we can be molded at will into a contrary personality. Even if this is the point, the fable remains confusing. And the long, elaborate fictional transformation tells us precious little about the kinds of real transformations that endanger us.

In any case, it's not the message, but the massage that makes the evening work. Brecht's attitude to the theater was new and refreshing. It retains a brash, defiant joy. You don't have to understand the point of the show to enjoy the show. The mood is strong and distinctive; the music is buoyant; and the performances winning.


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