Bach at Leipzig channels Tom Stoppard without the lasting exhilaration
Sam Gregory in Bach at Leipzig.
If I were as intensely clever as playwright Itamar Moses, author of Bach at Leipzig, and as fond of intellectual games, I would write this review first as a review, then as an analysis of the forms of the review and the ways in which my piece of writing does or doesn't conform to them, and then intertwine all of that with a brief essay on the history, role and significance of reviewing in general and the directions the genre might take in the future. Except that if I tried to do this, either my brain would implode or I'd fly right off into the ozone.
Bach at Leipzig exists at several removes from itself — which makes it hard to figure out, much less evaluate. The play is largely in the form of a fugue — or a fugue that's also a commentary on itself as a fugue, as well as being a meta-analysis of itself as a play. The year is 1722, and we're in Leipzig, Germany. Johann Kuhnau, the organ master of the Thomaskirsche, dies unexpectedly at the organ. Six people are soon competing to be his successor; each bears the first name Johann or Georg. The guardian of the great doors of the church is the stuffy, rule-obsessed Schott (excellently played by Chris Kendall), who believes music should exist solely as a celebration of God. Then there's Fasch (a terrific Sam Gregory), who broke with his mentor, Kuhnau, because they disagreed about the function of music: Unlike Schott, Fasch believes in freedom in composition. There's a lot of talk about Lutheranism, Pietism, Calvinism and the threat of Catholicism. Not only are religion and politics pretty much the same thing here, but religious belief also shapes each character's approach to composition.
Almost all of the contenders explain themselves in letters home, sent — with a fine whoosh of wings — by carrier pigeon. Lenck is a broke and slithery pickpocket. Steindorff actually wanted to be a dancer but was thwarted by his father. Kaufmann (another stellar performance, this one by Jim Hunt) is a dolt and a cuckold. Graupner is supposedly the second-best organist in Germany next to Telemann. The men talk in twos and threes, and their conversations are hardly musical or exalted. In their longing for the coveted post, they plot, connive, bribe, threaten and betray each other like middle-school kids. All seems lost when Telemann himself shows up, a striding, silent figure, but the contest continues until, in accordance with both the play's title and the historical reality, Bach (who never actually appears) gets the job.
The tone is farcical throughout, with lots of repeating jokes, sounds and actions. Though all the characters have quirks and tics, none comes across as a real, living person. They are more like rotating figures on a music box. And then, at the beginning of the second act, you learn why: Fasch explains the form of the fugue to his wife in a letter, and as he does, the other characters silently re-create the first act — which, you now realize, is a textbook illustration of the fugue. "The structure," Fasch writes, "is only clear in retrospect."
There's more meta-analysis when Fasch talks about Molière and explains that he dislikes the playwright's use of predictable devices, including the deus ex machina (who, of course, arrives in this play in the person of Bach) and "the fool who suddenly speaks wisdom." At which point foolish Kaufmann begins a brilliant description of the tension between free choice and formal structure in art. "This old world, Fasch, will be new again and again," he intones, perhaps foreseeing the end of the Baroque era after Bach's death in 1750, "so after us will come new forms we cannot imagine, because we do not yet need them to explain the world to ourselves."
Despite all its wit, elegance and erudition, Bach at Leipzig doesn't quite add up to a satisfactory production. 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 — but he doesn't leave you with the sense of exhilaration that Stoppard does. Thinking back later on the flying cloud of words and ideas you experienced, you feel you've been fed on air. Promise-crammed air, perhaps, but nothing that leaves much of a trace.
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