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Bach at Leipzig
May 14, 2010

Bach photo
From left: Daniel Noel, Ron Botting, Tom Butler, and Colby Chambers in Portland Stage's production of "Bach at Leipzig."
Photo by Kevin Brusie

Bach does not appear in Bach at Leipzig. He is like the God of the Lutherans, for if the Lord is nowhere to be seen, his presence is detected everywhere, and the work of Johann Sebastian Bach informs the form and content of Itamar Moses’ play, now on display at Portland Stage.

The year is 1722, and the music director of St. Thomas Church in Leipzig has finally died. (At the keys of the organ, appropriately enough; a listener notes, “The man performed his own dirge with his face.”) Suddenly the most prestigious musical gig in the Holy Roman Empire is available. A sextet of organist/composers quickly descends upon Leipzig to pay their respects to the deceased and compete for his job, not necessarily in that order.

In one of many running gags, the musicians all have either Johann or Georg as a first name. There’s Herr Fasch (Tom Butler), the earnest one; Herr Schott (Tom Ford), the bitter one; Herr Lenck (Colby Chambers), the low-born gambler; Herr Steindorff (Dustin Tucker), the entitled brat; Herr Kaufmann (Daniel Noel), the good-natured dolt; and Herr Graupner (Ron Botting), who carries both the title of “second best organist in Germany” and quite an inferiority complex about it.

These six fellows waste no time seeking advantage over one another. Bribes, threats, schemes, powerful powders, mind games and alliances are all employed. The stakes are high in more ways than one. Not only do the musicians hunker for a cushy life (”The music I could write!” they cry), but in an age of religious wars, they consider music and religion entwined at the root. Both the true faith and the proper musical expressions are tightly defined.

“Why must everything have a name?” cries Fasch, who would like to see a loosening of forms in both composition and worship. Schott, a conservative in every sense, replies, “So that we know which houses to burn.”

Bach was a master of the fugue, a musical form in which one melody spawns several others, and then they interact until a gorgeous complexity is achieved. Bach at Leipzig is an attempt to apply the fugue form to the stage. (Act II even opens with a nifty monologue/pantomime explaining how a fugue works, in case you missed the point.) Moses plays with his characters as Bach toyed with tunes, playing them off one another so they all become more interesting as the piece plays on.

It’s an apt conceit, niftily executed. By putting his characters into different combinations, the playwright shows their different sides until they become three-dimensional. And whereas Bach repeated and elaborated on musical riffs, Moses loads his script with verbal riffs that become funnier with every iteration. (Polyphony, meet the comedic Rule of Three.)

This all sounds very academic and highfalutin’ in theory, but in practice it’s just funny. True, it takes a while for the be-wigged cast to get into a groove. A few early scenes feel dully repetitive, but they line the story with little comedic time bombs that go off with increasing rapidity as the final curtain approaches.

Moses clearly enjoys mixing the high-flown with the lowbrow. One character makes a glancing reference to the mathematician/philosopher Leibnitz, “who has made it his business to unveil the numerical basis of the physical world, endeavoring to prove that a powerful order and meaning underlies even nature itself! [beat] Anyway…” This same character is, of course, soon seen cavorting in his favorite dress.

Director Samuel Buggeln seems to enjoy this kind of madcap ensemble play — his PSC credits include Noises Off — and for the most part, he manages his cast well. The most distinctive voices in this comic choir are those of Noel, who invests the daft Kaufmann with just enough pathos, and Ford as the embittered Schott. One look at Ford’s officious, fake smile and you know, long before the script tells you, that Schott has been disappointed all his life.

Bach at Leipzig might make you want to listen to fugues, or it may arouse your desire to watch Abbott & Costello’s “Who’s On First” routine. Moses would probably suggest you indulge both desires (and so, it’s safe to suppose, would J.S. Bach).

— Jason Wilkins

Bach at Leipzig runs through Sun., May 23, at Portland Stage Company, 25A Forest Ave., Portland. For schedule and tix, visit portlandstage.org. 774-0465.


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