Produced by Rep Stage
Reviewed by Rosalind Lacy
A Glorious Farce
(left to right) Bruce Nelson, Karl Kippola, and Matt Dunphy (Photo: Stan Barouh)
In great performances, sometimes every ingredient is just right. The right director, the right play, staged with the right actors and stage designers. All work together – like an exquisite clock – as in Rep Stage’s glorious production of Itamar Moses’ Bach at Leipzig..
Director Kasi Campbell, associate artistic director of Rep Stage, with seven Helen Hayes awards including Outstanding Director in 2004, takes this ingenious farce about political intrigue and lets it fly from one brilliant stage moment to another right up to the last breath-taking twist.
Johann Sebastian Bach composed glorious music and perfected the art of the fugue but this modern play is about us as human beings. The secret to great farce is that it must have something recognizably truthful and human at heart.
So start with the actual historic event. In 1722, seven organist-composers vied for the prestigious musical directorship of the Thomaskirche in Leipzig. Moses, the playwright, takes this audition as a launching pad for the raging Lutheran/Calvinist debate over free will versus predestination, fantasizes about the behind-the-scenes politicking before Bach ascended to the position, and bottles it up as a fugue. That’s what’s ingenious about the play—its structure.
Director Campbell respects playwright and actor by allowing each character to exist like an independent melody in a fugue. Everyone wants to get ahead. So egos are bound to clash. Some come together in collusion, willing to use forged letters from dukes, blackmail, drugged drinks, or bribery. But because Campbell possesses an uncanny ability to direct actors with attention to detail, historical and fictional characters, even the most unattractive, desperately hungry and ambitious, become believably warm, real, and comic.
Each act begins with a composer scribbling their personal agendas into a letter, then flown by carrier pigeon to a loved one. Actor Karl Kippola as the organist Fasch from Zerbst, is equally debonair and sympathetic as a sly schemer or a shackled prisoner in prison. In his second act soliloquy, he describes the fugue as a challenging musical form in which a single theme reappears in multiple voices, combined in counterpoint. Meanwhile, other characters dance upstage, circle in pinwheels in repeating formations, forward and backwards; thus illustrating his words in movement. It’s a thrilling moment.
Alexander Strain is wonderfully charming and funny as the gambler-organist, Georg Lenck, who’s as ambidextrously agile fingering keyboard arpeggios as he is as a pickpocket and perpetual swindler. Hopefully, he’s clever enough to dodge capture into debtor’s prison.
Matt Dunphy as the ebullient hypocrite, Steindorff, the organist in the long haired, Louis XIV wig, is delightful. Steindorff from Zwickau enjoys the art of intrigue for its own sake rather than winning the post. And Steindorff seems to have more yen for sexual conquest in the choir loft than passion for music.
Each musician lives in fear of plagiarism. Actor David Marks as organist Christoph Graupner from Darmstadt has one hilarious bit of business, when his sheet music, sewn to his skin inside his thighs, becomes a phallic symbol.
Actor Bill Largess, caught between confused dashes in and out of doors, stopping only for his deadpan takes, plays Kaufmann, who’s naïve and not as quick as the others to catch on. Kaufmann believes the backstabbing musicians are all rehearsing a silly play "The Unbelievably Incredulous Fool," about a foolish cuckold. He stands to the side and makes asides, like "Recapitulation," thus labeling conversation points as parts of the fugal form. But when one of the musicians, Graupner, stumbles in, his leg bleeding from a bandit’s attack outside the city gates, Kaufmann wakes up to reality: Danger lurks inside the church square as well. One of the musicians is involved in an illicit affair with his wife. "The unbelievable fool is me," he cries. A wonderful moment, worthy of Moliere.
Actor Bruce R. Nelson gives a luminous performance, nuanced with arched eyebrow or haughty gaze, as the closed-minded martinet, who resists innovation, but who transforms and achieves redemption when he concedes that Bach is the true genius at a turning point in musical history. In a transcendent state, Nelson is emotionally moving during Schott’s realization that "(Bach) achieved every sacred moment I only hoped to achieve."
And then there’s Alex Zavistovich as Telemann, the Greatest Organist in Germany, who turns down the Leipzig offer for a more generous one at three times the salary. Thus, he leaves the path clear for Bach. Telemann’s grand entrances and silences make a strong statement among all the competitive babble. Especially since we never actually see the character of Bach, and we only hear snippets of his music through the opening and closing church door.
Bringing all these individual voices on stage at once is like polyphony in the fugue itself. Overall, the play is a fugue about the absurd, even insane, jealousies that accompany musicians as they try to eliminate the competition. And in a sense every character gets what he wants, whether it is self-awareness or freedom from delusion. Nobody really gets hurt. But this play isn’t just about Bach and his music. This play could be about a great physicist, a theologian, mathematician or a political leader, like Napoleon. It’s a farce that gets caught between the sinfully funny and the intellectually profound. To what absurd lengths will men go to wheel and deal for position?
Campbell in her direction doesn’t just focus on the surface look of a production, as configured by Miagros Ponce de Leon’s coolly detached, efficient, lavender blue-gray set on the Smith Theatre’s modified thrust stage at Howard Community College. All technical elements seem organic. Especially the lighting design by Dan Covey: In the first act, the translucent panels embedded between the obtuse angles of the flats suggest the outside of a church’s opaque windows. By the end of the play, those same panels glow, backed by luminous white light, to suggest the stained glass of the church’s interior. It’s a subtle change but stunningly symbolic. The windows change, just as the characters change and grow.
Sound designer Chas Marsh duplicates the sound of carrier pigeons so effectively, that at one moment I involuntarily looked up to the ceiling for a bird.
Fight choreographer Lewis Shaw deserves mention for mapped-out fight scenes in fugal form. Two-way duels give way to five-way sword fights in pinwheel formation. Costumer Kathleen Geldard’s choices of borrowed costumes from the Washington Opera Company for this all-male cast are lush.
Near the climactic end: Schott runs in with a hammer to smash the organ. But Bach’s organ performance of one of his great fugues quenches Schott’s jealous rage at not winning the council’s votes, just as Bach’s music heard at a distance is reported to stop the avenging armies from warring city states. Similarly, Bach’s musical compositions have the power to convert and bring his rivals to their knees in worship. Even the tavern at the end of Bach’s career is changed into a 1750 music shop. Oh, such faith in the power of music.
I came away from Bach at Leipzig exalted. There’s hope. At this turning point in history, genius was not blocked by petty politics.
(Running time: 2:25 with a 15-minute intermission.) Bach at Leipzig continues through April 1, 2007, at the Smith Theatre at Howard Community College, 10901 Little Patuxent Parkway, Columbia, Maryland 21044. Performances: Thursday through Sunday with Saturday and Sunday matinees. Tickets: Thurs. $12; Fri. $22; Sat. Matinees, $16, evenings, $24. Sun. matinees, $20, Sun. evenings $18. Students $12 with ID. For information and directions: www.repstage.org Box Office: 410-772-4900.
To hear our discussion with actors Bruce Nelson and Bill Largesse and director Kasi Campbell, click here.