Richard Easton and Boyd Gaines wait in the doorway of history in Itamar Mosess Bach at Leipzig.
Play on fugues is far from formulaic
By Steve Snyder
Throughout Pam MacKinnons energized production of Itamar Moses oft-silly, but intellectually involving Bach at Leipzig, two prominent wooden doors stand watch in the background, towering over the action. The focal point of the stage, and in many ways the subtle centerpiece of the story, these brown doors are gestured to, massaged and even embraced by the characters. They are the doors through which history will be made, and through which these characters, trapped perpetually in historys waiting room, will never be allowed to pass.
As Moses would have us believe, these doors exist in 1722, the year in which Europes most prestigious musical post becomes vacant. As the most prominent and acclaimed musician of the land, the Kapellmeister, or the organmaster, will be charged with guiding the direction of music at this pivotal crossroads between the Reformation and the Age of Enlightenment, a period when the very purpose of musicwhether to serve God, or to please our fellow manis in question.
Then we reach the second act, and this plot involving a most lofty position breaks down, along with the very premise of Bach at Leipzig. Using his characters as his mouthpiece, Moses confronts his role as a writer and composer, and we learn that this is not just a play about a famous meeting of musical minds, but a far richer meditation on the nature of theater. Just as these musicians question their worth, and the greater meaning of their compositions, so too does Moses question the rules that dictate his art form, and how a playwright can ever hope to break free of the constraints that have been cast in stone over the centuries.
There are seven faces in the group but only six voices; one character, billed only as the Greatest Organist in Germany, pointedly never speaks as he marches by. (Bach, though referenced in name, never even makes an appearance.) The remainder of the group is comprised of three Johanns and three Georgs, their names the punch line of an early joke, all composers with differing agendas. Among the most memorable competitors is Johann Friedrich Fasch (Boyd Gaines), the crestfallen former student of the former master who returns to claim the post he feel he deserves. Then theres Georg Friedrich Kaufmann (Tony Award-winner Richard Easton), a cheerful but simple old man who comes to be known by the others as the unbelievably credulous fool. Theres also Georg Balthasar Schott (Michael Emerson), the conservative, long-time friend of the former master who seeks the post to ensure that its music remains unchanged.
For each of the composers, news of the organmasters death is both tragic and exciting. They come to Leipzig to audition to replace the fallen master, competing against each other in what might seem to some like a more educated and eloquent episode of the reality TV series Survivor, each contestant setting out to build alliances and, quite literally, backstab their opponents.
As each of the organists makes their way on stage, they are given their initial moment in the spotlight, reciting letters they have written home to their wives and introducing themselves to the audience as distinct characters. But it is in the beginning of the second act, during Faschs open letter to his wife, that we realize this play has far more on its mind than a routine 18th century comedy.
You, Anna, shall write a fugue, Fasch says during his introduction to this second chapter, offering advice to his wife on how to start composing her own music. After all, the styles of old must be understood thoroughly before they can be rejected as ridiculous. Innovation comes most easily when suppressed.
The fugue he suggests, and the innovation he endorses, is a metaphor for what Bach at Leipzig is hoping to achieve: A fugue, staring with a single and superficial melodythe first acts game of cat-and-mouseand then gradually adding voices and complexities that reveal a larger concept built around hidden harmonies and motifs.
Its not that subtle of a statement, and Moses doesnt really intend it to be. In fact, as the play evolves, his text becomes even more self-referential. The characters later devolve into performing a play within the play, presented for Kaufman alone. As he comments on their production, noting how they both follow conventions and conventionally break them (Audience participation! How revolutionary! or It does smack of contrivance.), Moses finds his rhythm, tearing apart the reality of this world in wholly original and hysterical fashion.
Bach is not a play for everyone, as evidenced by the overwhelmingly negative review last week in the New York Times. And for those like Times critic Charles Isherwood, who consider it a a long, gushy love letter addressed to someone else, the second act may feel more like an homage than a revelation, more a retracing of earlier steps than an inventive breakthrough all its own. But for others who appreciate the works of such playwrights as Tom Stoppard, whose name is used frequently in the plays marketing materials as both a fan of Bach at Leipzig (he wrote the forward to its published version) and one of Moses idols, it may resemble a familiar song, but one that is sung to a fresh, new tune.
Bach at Leipzig is by no means perfect, but considering what the play audaciously sets out to do, the considerable success it achieves in twisting its drama to evoke ideas about art and reality (not to mention the fact that Moses is only 28), it may be less important as an individual production than as a stepping stone for a bold new playwright.