If It Ain't Baroque...
Sometimes a good idea for a play doesn't spin out into good theater. One such conundrum is Bach at Leipzig, a well-produced but dramatically inert talkfest now on colorful display at Florida Stage. Itamar Moses' new play, a Florida premiere, has to do with a historical event in 1722, when a collection of ambitious German composers competed for the prized post of organist at the famed St. Thomas' Church of Leipzig. The field included Georg Phillip Telemann, Johann Sebastian Bach, and some minor luminaries.
These lesser lights are the focus of Moses' play, which starts from the few bare facts and elaborates from there: Upon learning of the death of Johann Kunau, St. Thomas' venerable organist, the group of composers gathers anxiously in an antechamber behind the huge organ, awaiting their auditions, as a nearby wall clock ticks away the time. Kunau's former pupil, Johann Fash (Dan Leonard), is a moralistic straight arrow who hopes that the competition will be fair and based entirely on merit. Arrogant Steindorff (Paul Whitthorne), a primping young aristocrat, hopes his family name will sway the nominating committee. Georg Lenck (Warren Kelley) is a scheming trickster, planning to use his cleverness to advantage, while Georg Schott (Joel Leffert) is an embittered also-ran whose desperation builds. Famed organist Johann Graupner (Gordon McConnell) frets that he will be forever in the shadow of the even more famous Georg Phillip Telemann (Wayne Steadman). All are observed by yet another rival, the blockheaded Georg Kauffman (Traber Burns), who's so simple-minded, he thinks the scheming of his colleagues is part of a play they plan to stage. Yet another rival, Johann Sebastian Bach, is reported to have arrived, but none considers him a credible threat. The arrival of Telemann, though, appears to spell doom for all. Tensions mount as this wasp's nest of rivals must abide the wait as the clock ticks on to the moment of truth.
And a long wait it is. While Bach at Leipzig sets up an array of contrasting and combative personalities, it doesn't do much with them. These characters are at Leipzig to await a decision; what they do until then means little. They bicker, banter, write numerous letters home (too many of which are spoken in monologues), plot, and counterplot, but none of this comes to anything, and the play never establishes much in the way of stakes or jeopardy. We in the audience have no idea why we should care. Perhaps that is Moses' intention. Certainly his play is aiming for big issues: the enduring essence of music, the nature of greatness, and the grasping, petty nature of human ambition.
As is now becoming the standard at Florida Stage, the production far outshines its script. The seven-man cast is perfectly solid, but despite their skills and those of director Drew Fracher, they are carrying this play on their backs. The intricate Baroque costumes from Suzette Pare are gorgeous, as is Jim Fulton's nuanced, evocative lighting. Klara Zieglerova's imposing set, a massive stone church structure centered by two huge wooden doors, emphasizes the pettiness of the little men scurrying before it: The huge lock and keyhole are set ten feet high -- only giants are meant to stride into musical greatness.
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The obvious template for such composer wars is Peter Shaffer's Amadeus, where another supposedly mediocre artist, Antonio Salieri, frets and fumes about the genius of his rival, Mozart. But Shaffer's work always focuses on melodramatic theatricality, often using murder, violence, and spectacle as central concerns, as in Equus and The Royal Hunt of the Sun. Bach does offer a bit of physicality when a big swordfight arises in the second act, pretty much arbitrarily, but otherwise the play is modeled less on Shaffer and more on Tom Stoppard. It aims at a Theater of Ideas, using historical fact as the springboard for linguistic and philosophical acrobatics, and clearly references Stoppard's Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, another costume piece about bit players forced to sit around and wait while powerful off-stage forces decide their fates. But Moses, a young writer, is no Tom Stoppard, at least not yet. Bach's language and wordplay are profuse but pedestrian: aphorisms like "he was tall as a tree and twice as savage" stretch for wit and fail, as does wordplay on character names: "(stop talking) unless you prefer to be the Missing Lenck" as a threat, or "Oh, Schott!" as an expletive.
More damaging is the play's central contradiction, which is based upon one of music history's great jokes: Bach, now regarded as the genius of his age, was during his own life considered merely one among many master musicians, and once dead, he was soon forgotten. It was only in the 19th Century that Bach found favor again, making him the first great composer not universally regarded as such in his lifetime. Bach at Leipzig, in its very title, makes use of this ironic, historical hindsight: We know that Bach is the greatest of all, but the characters do not. They are totally obsessed by Telemann -- who walks away with the job with little ado. All of this is fine, but the play goes on to show how Bach's contemporaries who overlooked him in the competition later fall into ecstasies when they hear his music and immediately recognize his genius. OK, Bach's a genius but Telemann whips him in the competition? So what does that mean? That the nominating committee is completely unable to see Bach's greatness while his musical rivals instantly can, like six Salieris? If so, many of Moses' earlier points -- which we can see clearly only from a distance and with perspective -- are turned entirely on their heads.
Some of this weakness can be attributed to inexperience: Moses is trying to portray the frustrations and failures of middle age without much knowledge or insight. It's telling that by far the most effective sequence in Bach is when Joel Leffert as Schott reveals the enduring bitterness he felt when, as a young student, his application to the St. Thomas school was rejected. A direct echo of this strong sentiment can be heard in a column Moses wrote in the Yale Daily News in 1999 when still an undergraduate. His subject: the pain of a rejected grad school application. Like many a writer before him, Moses has the audacity and verbal facility to venture into bold musings far afield of his own experience, but he is much more effective when he sticks to what he knows. When he strays, he's in danger of being the subject of one of his own character's barbs: "He takes quite some time to say very little."
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