Bach at Leipzig
"Bach at Leipzig," now playing at Taproot Theatre under the direction of Karen Lund, is a mixed bag: there’s no Bach here, except for the music playing in the background throughout, and instead we get a slow first act with a fascinating, thought-provoking second act. Playwright Itamar Moses has taken a story of a group of great organists arriving in Leipzig to struggle and feud over the position of music director, embellished what history remembers of the characters and written the whole thing using the form of a fugue, a musical structure. Specifically, he creates it to echo Bach’s six voice fugue "Das Muikalische Opfer" known for being marvelously complex. It’s an interesting concept and well-developed in Act II, but to get there the audience has to struggle through a declamatory Act I.
The idea of a fugue is that a single voice begins it, and the play begins the same way, with a single character, organist Johann Friedrich Fasch (Kevin McKeon) speaking aloud a letter to his wife explaining why he has come to Leipzig. This structure continues throughout Act I with each character arriving and announcing himself and his purpose at great length, followed by discussion among the voices of the organists on a theme, still following the musical form of a fugue. Johann Kuhnau, Fasch’s old teacher and mentor with whom he fell out years ago, is the music director at Leipzig and has called for Fasch because he is near death and needs to set a successor. Delayed at the doorway by Georg Balthasar Schott (Aaron Lamb), another organist, Fasch arrives in time to witness his old tutor’s death, leaving the question of his replacement open.
In quick succession the best organists in Germany (Georg Lenck played by Matt Shimkus, Johann Martin Steindorff played by Riley Neldam and Georg Friedrich Kaufmann played by Nolan Palmer) descend upon the town. We think we’ve met all the characters when one final organist, Johann Christoph Graupner (Nathan Jeffrey) sneaks in just as auditions are about to begin for the position.
That’s still not the end of the candidates because as the men scuffle, bribe, cajole and threaten one another, one last organist appears, named only as the Greatest Organist in Germany (Bill Johns), to sweep the competition and make all the convoluted plotting amongst the others irrelevant. The Greatest Organist in Germany never speaks (although he is frequently referenced as having a beautiful speaking voice) and eventually we learn that he is Telemann.
During Act I, I had a hard time understanding why I should care about any of them. There are very clever little moments of humor ("I am insulted!" says one. "I am insulting you!" replies another; Graupner recites what he calls "optimistic incantations" like "Don’t while away your worth worrying if you are worthwhile;" everyone in the play is named either Johann or Georg leading to many "who’s on first?" sorts of humorous moments) but the underlying meaning of it all remains opaque and confusing.
Act II on the other hand opens by uncovering the underlying fugue structure of the play. Fasch narrates and explains as the other characters pantomime going through the entirety of Act I. With the explanation and without the language, it becomes a beautiful dance of sorts, ending as they all mail off their letters via carrier pigeon, boosting their invisible birds aloft. When we can see the characters as voices in a musical piece rather than as people the piece, despite the fact that the mechanics are laid bare, becomes surprising and intriguing, awakening our interest.
At one point we even get a funny little play within a play because Kaufmann believes the other organists are acting out a piece for entertainment, when they are arguing in deadly earnest. He treats it as a performance and offers both applause and criticism along the way.
One of the recurring themes of conversation and fierce debate is the concept of free will vs. predestination, an irony in a play so carefully structured. What appears to be free will among the characters leading to confusion and chaos in Act I is uncovered as a deep underlying plan following carefully rote form in Act II.
A marvelous and intriguing idea that somehow doesn’t make Act I any easier to take. And maybe that’s the point: that we need to see an underlying truth to chaos to make it palatable and to lend grace to the awkward gyrations we all make through our lives.
"Bach at Leipzig" runs through June 15th at Taproot Theatre, 204 N. 85th St. in Seattle. For info or tickets, call 206-781-9707 or visit online at taproottheatre.org.