REVIEW WRITTEN BY DANTE J.J. BEVILACQUA
For 21st Century Media
We think of Johann Sebastian Bach’s music as lofty, sublime; “an argument for the existence of God,” as one Bach scholar put it. To his contemporaries, however, Bach was competent but not great.
After he died, no one bothered to save his music; hundreds of his scores were discarded as scrap paper. During his life, when important jobs came open, he had to audition like everyone else and he wasn’t anybody’s first choice.
“Bach at Leipzig” isn’t historical fiction: It’s a comedy based very loosely, on the actual competition held in Leipzig in 1722 to replace Johann Kuhnau as organist at the Thomaskirche (St. Thomas Church).
That’s the starting premise of “Bach at Leipzig,” Itamar Moses’ harliously daffy play that wears its cleverness on its sleeve, now on stage at the People’s Light and Theatre Company in Malvern.
The year is 1722, and the music director of St. Thomas Church in Leipzig has died at the keys of the organ, appropriately enough; a listener notes, “The man performed his own dirge with his face.” Suddenly the most prestigious musical gig in the Holy Roman Empire is available.
A sextet of organist/composers quickly descends upon Leipzig to pay their respects to the deceased and more importantly, compete for his job.
Bach was a master of the fugue, a musical form in which one melody spawns several others, and then they interact until a gorgeous complexity is achieved. “Bach at Leipzig” is Moses’ attempt to apply the fugue form to the stage.
The main theme in the play is presented by Fasch (exquisitely portrayed by Greg Wood) and each subsequent character that enters presents his own theme which is neatly intertwined with the rest. Themes are then repeated with slight variation by different actors, pairs of actors and even trios.
Add to this learned discussions of philosophy, the distinctions between Lutheranism, Calvinism and other branches of the Protestant Reformation, degrees of predestination, local politics and musical styles.
These discussions are all quite serious, subtle and profound. And, in this play, profoundly silly; “Why must everything have a name?” One man asks in frustration with all the subtle differences in faith – “So we know what houses to burn.” he is told.
Moses is a huge admirer of Tom Stoppard, and there’s something very Stoppardian about the dizzying whirligig of ideas he sets in motion here and he leaves you with a heady the sense of exhilaration that Stoppard does.
While Bach himself is a saintly offstage presence, Moses makes his competitors into a rogues gallery of sniping schemers out to win by any means possible. Blackmail, forming treacherous alliances and even starting a literal war between kingdoms is part of their arsenal of tricks.
Bach serves a role sort of like Godot in Waiting for Godot: He’s not an onstage presence, despite being crucial to the action.
Instead, Moses focuses on the now-forgotten contenders for the job, who form alliances and betray each other as quickly as any wannabe TV star on a reality show.
One by one, in a structure aping the musical form of the fugue, the competitors introduce themselves by reading long letters to various wives, lovers and associates. The innovator Fasch (Greg Wood) is a former student of Kuhnau who broke with his mentor over their differing ideas of how to serve God through music. Lenck (Jabari Brisport) is a scamp with a spotty past who hopes to restore his reputation and finances by gaining the prestigious post.
Steindorff (Danny Gardner) is a sexually voracious young aristocrat from a town at a neighboring burg, whence hails the dotty older Kaufmann (Steven Novelli), yet another candidate. Guarding the door of the church from all comers is the downtrodden Schott (Kevin Bergen), the organist at one of Leipzig’s lesser churches, who hopes that his chance at the big time has arrived at last.
Plots are hatched, conspiracies are fomented, “Survivor”-style alliances are formed as the candidates try to outmaneuver one another and the big prize here is that all the intricate word play and fancy machinery of the plot bubbles with a farcical energy.
This, no doubt, is attributed to the marvelous hand of director Pete Pryor who adeptly choreographs the action moving his players like chess pieces as each one momentarily gains the upper hand. This could be a static play but the staging brilliantly reinforces the notion — you not only feel the fugue but you see it in action!
Pryor has assembled a cast that includes seriously skilled comic actors, and each manages to earn a robust laugh, each having delightful mannerisms peculiar to their character all done with earthy shtick.
This production bestows double blessings on Moses. In addition to the stellar cast, using elaborate wigs and ornate outfits of meticulously detailed ruffle and brocade finery, Maria Jurglanis has garbed the participants in luxuriant 18th-century style. There’s lace and satin enough to please the most ambitious fop. Yet there are also more humble outfits that work well to reveal class differences.
Jorge Cousineau’s superb sound design accentuates the expert timing of the whole affair: from precisely timed snatches of baroque music to fluttering noises that evoke invisible homing pigeons.
The action takes place in the antechamber of the gothic church, and Roman Tatarowicz’s set is a study in symmetry; an appropriately ecclesiastical setting. There are glowing candelabras, and two arched entrances on either side of a huge double door. Lily Fossner’s lighting is an organic element that compliments this gothic set.
So thoroughly literate are the references and language, so clever are the jokes and self-assessments, so satisfied with its own structural accomplishment, that “Bach at Leipzig” leaves you wanting to experience the exhilaration all over again. Don’t miss it.
IF YOU GO
WHAT: “Bach at Leipzig”
WHERE: The People’s Light and Theatre Company, 39 Conestoga Road in Malvern WHEN: Now through Aug. 10.
INFO.: Call (610) 644-3500 or check peopleslight.org.