When Bach at Leipzig premiered at the Milwaukee Repertory Theater in 2004, the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel commented, “Imagine the Marx Brothers and Tom Stoppard collaborating on a play.”
Who wants to be a star Baroque organ-meister? Clawing, coercing and conniving their way to the revered top organist position at the prestigious Thomaskirche (St. Thomas Church) in Leipzig, Germany, six foppish opportunists and one conceited prig gather in 1722 to vie for the cherished title. Fort Worth’s Circle Theatre has assembled a dream cast of wunderkind performers to bring celebrated playwright Itamar Moses’ 2005 Off-Broadway hit Bach at Leipzig to life under the thorough, fearless guidance of director Robin Armstrong. What results is one of the finest productions of 2010.
Moses’ play radiates a taut symphonic harmony mimicking a real Baroque fugue (via Encyclopedia Britannica: “in music, a compositional procedure characterized by the systematic imitation of a principal theme, called the subject, in simultaneously sounding melodic lines, known as counterpoint”). General bawdiness, wordplay, madcap pratfalls and ironic humor, interwoven with discussion of post Restoration-era theology, freedom of expression v. dogma and the nature of playwriting (with a scandalous dig at Moliere), keep this play lively, entertaining and intellectually stimulating. Moses got his inspiration for it in a Yale sophomore music class where he learned that the 1722 search to replace the Leipzig organ-meister did happen, and that Johann Sebastian Bach did eventually win the post after the composer and multi-instrumentalist Georg Telemann turned it down.
The play opens on a sparsely set stage (Clare Floyd DeVries design). Two plain benches sit downstage right and left, and two low unadorned walls upstage flank a large wooden double door that leads to a resplendently appointed, dimly visible sanctuary (painted backdrop) where the contested organ resides. The waiting room space’s bare simplicity allows audience focus to remain squarely on the clever repartee engaged in by actors creating the roles of aspiring organ-meisters. When the lights come up, organist applicant Johann Fasch (Steven Pounders) enthralls the audience center stage with elegant demeanor and a wicked twinkle in his eye. Attired in detailed Baroque era garb, from pretentious coiffed wig to lace jabot cravat to ornate full waistcoat with huge cuffs, hose and buckled dress hoes, he is every inch the gentleman scoundrel and casts his lines off with disarming, practiced confidence, handily sustained throughout the performance. He’s the kind of actor who inspires entire schools of acting. One by one the other aspiring peacocks enter and preen, squabble, feign affection, conspire, betray and retreat across Act One, only to begin the assault again, fugue-like, in Act Two. Each performance has virtuoso moments of pure hilarity with spot-on timing. All make a “well-tempered” ensemble under the forthright guidance of director Armstrong. ( Armstrong also costumed the show; every costume is a unique reflection of each character’s personality in minute detail. It’s a joy to watch this cast so effectively and appropriately dressed.)
Chris Hauge as the naïve, befuddled “boob” Kaufmann, David H. M. Lambert as the gruff, conventional, underappreciated Schott, Stephen Levall as spoiled rich boy Steindorff who hates music but lusts for the ladies, and Art Peden as ever silent but intimidating Telemann throw their varied and rich talents full force into the reality of this unusual waiting game.
What a treat to see the different but masterful, complimentary comic abilities of David Coffee as the egotistical, overbearing, delusional Graupner and Andy Baldwin as sleazy con artist, pickpocket, unabashed prevaricator and sometime composer Lenck on full display.
They match comic wit and style in two of the funniest portrayals on a metroplex stage this year. And weaving “sanity” through it all strides Stephen Pounders’ inscrutable Fasch, beguiling the audience with his gift of gab and well-feigned sincerity.
We never see Bach, after the convoluted plot unwinds and resolves itself, but who needs to? We hear his organ music pouring forth from the flung open upstage doors and attend in awe, with the characters on stage, finally in full accord and at peace. Buy your tickets now. From word of mouth alone, Bach at Leipzig is sure to be a sell-out.
Tickets: www.circletheatre.com, 817-877-3040
230 W. Fourth Street
Fort Worth, TX 76102
Sundance Square Entertainment District
Sound design: David H. M. Lambert; set design: Clare Floyd DeVries: light design: John Leach; props: John Harvey; costumes and fight choreography: Robin Armstrong; wardrobe: Sharon Standard; wigs: Sheryl Myers