"Bach at Leipzig by Itamar Moses is a very curious play. A story of classical musicians in a rivalry for a church position in Germany in 1722, it is filled with propriety and period manners at the same time that it's a simple, thoroughly unhinged comedy. Karen Lund is a director who always enriches the material she presents, and she uses an accomplished cast to compose this unexpectedly formal structure, a somewhat silly comedic fugue of fast action, surreptitious motives and untuned ambition. At times the play is just too wordy, the convoluted character and place names tangling in the actor's mouths, but even that is sometimes used for comedic effect. Every character in the play is named either Johann or Georg, with the exception of one known only as "The Greatest Organist in Germany". As in much comedy, many of the laughs are the result of these distinguished (and often underemployed) men taking themselves entirely too seriously. Add into that several keys of misunderstanding, the themes and variations of each man's ambition, a very funny misapprehension of what is reality and what is performance, lots of fast action runs up and down the plot keyboard and some low-brow slapstick and you have an entertaining, smartly melodic theatrical vaudeville.
While Mark Lund's scenic and sound design creates an attractive world just outside the doors of the church where the men are to audition, the elegant and ornate costumes byNanette Acosta are the critical element in the technical production. The actors are all to be commended for how well they handled the flourishes of all that material, and how easily they moved back and forth between elegance and absurdity. The use of the entire theatre as a playing space, as well as the stage itself, was a great way of reminding us that a big, broad world lay outside that harsh, wooden door.
Kevin McKeon, as Johann Friedrich Fasch, introduced us to the play through his letters to his wife back home. His trilling endearments were as annoying to her as they were silly to us, but they underscored just how hard all these men were trying to create something beautiful, regardless of how trivial the result of that effort might be. McKeon was also the perfect blend of decency and ambition in pursuit of prestige and security. By contrast, Aaron Lamb, as Georg Balthasar Schott was all about the fluorish, a costume more interesting than the man who wore it. Nathan Jeffrey played Johann Christoph Graupner as the dark horse coming up from the outside to win the race by a nose, albeit with a bit of a fix. Matt Shimkus made Georg Lenck both talented and clueless, just the right blend to qualify as a a contender among this bunch. Riley Neldam was very funny as the young, insubstantial Johann Martin Steindorff, a fellow who simply isn't up to this level of competition but who loves being in the game. Bill Johns had the relatively thankless job of being an icon, the voiceless and largely decorative "Greatest Organist in Germany". Finally, Nolan Palmer was absolutely wonderful as the elderly Georg Friedrich Kaufmann, a very pleasant man who hasn't got a clue but who is eternally amused by all the activity. I loved the scene where he believes that the exposition we are being given is a play being performed for him, and I loved the way he balanced his cluelessness with a genuinely good heart. His was the only character for whom it really didn't matter if he won or not.
"Bach at Leipzig" is certainly not a show for everyone. It's esoteric artistic concerns and distant time and place are embodied in characters who are both trivial and substantive, it's structure as complex as the six-part fugue and as simple as a pratfall. Ultimately, paying close attention to both the composition and the performance is quite rewarding, but if you only want to attend to the fast action, superficial motivations and inventive performances there are enough laughs to make for great entertainment. Perhaps that is the greatest musical gift these men wish to send up to the Heavens.