Bach in Leipzig at Gorilla Theatre

It's a heady experience, but the play could also use a little more heart

click to enlarge RIGHT BACH AT YA: Steve Mountan (left) and Steve Garland star in Bach in Leipzig. - Jeff Young Photography
Jeff Young Photography
RIGHT BACH AT YA: Steve Mountan (left) and Steve Garland star in Bach in Leipzig.

Bach at Leipzig ought to be more satisfying. It's intelligently written, has what should be a suspenseful plot, contains a few delightful running gags and a pleasing variety of argumentative, vain and devious characters. But in the current production at Gorilla Theatre, the play remains mostly an intellectual exercise, one that never reaches deeply into the sources of spectator emotion or, for that matter, laughter.

Itamar Moses' play is easier to admire than to love: we're impressed by the author's erudition, by his ability to structure his comedy like the theatrical equivalent of a fugue. But the action of the play is never as interesting as it wants to be; the six characters at its core are too hard to tell apart; and the dialogue, while finely crafted, is so consistently cerebral that it makes it hard for us to care who wins what and at what cost.

Mindful theater is at its best when it makes us think. Bach at Leipzig seldom asks us to involve ourselves in the action and therefore ultimately loses us.

The story the play tells is ripe with possibilities for suspense and humor. It is June 1722. The chief organist of the Thomaskirche (St. Thomas Church) of Leipzig, Johann Kuhnau, has just died, and auditions are being held for his replacement. Among those who are vying for the coveted post is Johann Fridrich Fasch, one of Kuhnau's best students, who learned, along with his music, the belief that "Music ... was God's gift to us and our only worthy way of praising God in return."

But in time, Fasch turns away from Kuhnau's musical and religious instruction, and looks for the opportunity to guide Leipzig in a new direction. Other contenders include Georg Balthasar Schott, an organist at a much smaller church in Leipzig and a defender of Lutheranism and traditionalism in music; Georg Lenck, an impoverished thief and forger of letters of recommendation; Johann Martin Steindorff, womanizer and scion of a powerful family in Zwickau; Georg Friedrich Kaufmann, an ambassador from Merseburg; and Johann Christoph Graupner, reputed to be "the second greatest organist in Germany."

Not satisfied with staking their careers on their merits, the musicians make various backroom deals: Schott tries to blackmail Steindorff into leaving Leipzig, and Steindorff tries to blackmail Lenck into doing the same; someone is drugged, bribes are distributed, and someone is unjustly imprisoned.

There are a few things that author Moses does very well. For example, he's adept at the running gag, such as the problem of a world full of musicians named Johann or Georg, or the recurring theme of musical compositions hidden on the bodies of their creators. His attempt to create a theatrical fugue at the same time that this musical form is being explained in a monologue is exceedingly bold (though I have to admit that what I saw at the Gorilla didn't look like a fugue might). And his ability to compose intelligent prose — when his characters are "writing" letters to their loved ones, for example — is outstanding. Sometimes his jokes are immediately potent, and there's a certain pleasure in discovering that at least one modern playwright still cares about subjects such as predestination and free will. There's also some very funny cross-dressing and a fair amount of silly swordplay.

And several of the Gorilla actors turn in impressive work. Best of all is Steve Mountan, who seems to have walked right out of the early 18th century and whose mannered, precise delivery is just right for a denizen of an age obsessed with order. Also excellent is C. David Frankel, who manages to be funny even when he's silent and whose cartoonish performance is a hint of what the production might have been if differently conceived. Solid work is also turned in by Alvin Jenkins as Lenck and Kyle Porter as Steindorff — the former especially demonstrates a ready mastery of Moses' language. I'm not so convinced by the other performances. The fine actor Steve Garland plays Schott as a kind of rake, damaged by his dissipations, but I just can't feel sure that such a portrayal is demanded by the script. As for Dan Khoury, his Graupner should be much, much funnier — he's supposed to be monumentally self-centered — and much less hesitant. Director Scott Isert had the task of making a difficult text look easy, and he's mostly accomplished this; his staging includes some truly beautiful moments, such as the look and sound of men releasing carrier pigeons to the four winds. But I don't think Isert has succeeded in showing us a musical structure turned into drama — and that transformation is Moses' greatest gambit. Allen Loyd's stately set includes faux-marble flooring and, above the back wall, organ pipes and a stained glass window. But the designer who most shines is costumer Jennifer Cunningham: These colorful period clothes are among the most attractive I've ever seen. Kudos also to Lynne Locher for her wonderful sound design: Listening to the bits and pieces of Baroque music during the evening, one begins to realize that for people of Bach's era, a good loud fugue was genuinely a mind-expanding event.

But Bach at Leipzig, at least in this production, is not mind-expanding. For a play about a competition, it's unusually static. And it's a work without heart. The best of the intellectuals among playwrights — from Sophocles to Beckett, including, at his best, Shaw — know better than to leave emotion out of their scripts. We feel for Oedipus and for Lucky in Waiting for Godot and for Eliza Doolittle in Pygmalion. Their situations, no matter how intellectual at the core, also elicit our concern.

Author Moses never makes us care. And that's one big flaw that Bach at Leipzig can't transcend.

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