By Celia Wren
Special to The Washington Post
Wednesday, March 21, 2007
Career advancement in the 18th century was a tougher business. Take the plight of the characters in "Bach at Leipzig," Itamar Moses's intellectual funhouse of a play at Rep Stage. Not only can these guys not dispatch their CVs through cyberspace, they have to send all their letters via carrier pigeon.
In Moses's historical riff, six musicians gathered in Germany are competing for a prestigious job: organist for the church known as the Thomaskirche, an audition that really occurred. As war brews between German states and highwaymen go on the rampage, the keyboardists -- all named either Georg or Johann -- devise byzantine schemes to top each other.
With its wordplay, brainy allusions, bold swipes at history and virtuoso manipulation of artistic forms, "Bach at Leipzig," astutely directed by Kasi Campbell, has a "look-Ma-no-hands" swagger that seems aimed at out-Stopparding Tom Stoppard.
The entire first act, for instance, adopts the intricate structure of a fugue, a musical form at which Bach excelled. The movements and confrontations of the rival musicians suggest a pattern of contrapuntal voices, from the initial spat between free-thinking Johann Friedrich Fasch (Karl Kippola) and his sour conservative enemy, Georg Balthasar Schott (Bruce Nelson), down to the late arrival of the insecure celebrity Johann Christoph Graupner (David Marks).
When these fellows and their colleagues are not trying to bribe, poison, swindle or intimidate each other, they're likely to be arguing about artistic traditionalism or else about the Lutheran doctrine of predestination -- topics with similar ramifications, the play points out, for our views on free will.
Balancing such highfalutin talk is a farcelike humor -- lots of zany misunderstandings, comic repetitions and conspicuously choreographed entrances and exits. Campbell harnesses this screwball energy adeptly, marshalling her performers smoothly around Milagros Ponce de Leon's white ecclesiastical set, whose modernistic look suits the play's ironic distance from the past.
Although the acting isn't entirely top tier, there are two hilariously idiosyncratic performances: Nelson brings a smoldering snitty-ness to the character of Schott, a limp-wristed, stern-eyed fellow who sputters with disgust at the very mention of Vivaldi. Marks is delightful as the perpetually out-of-breath Graupner, who totters around reciting self-help mantras.
The other cast members display less distinctiveness and poise. Kippola's Fasch lacks a strong personality, and Matt Dunphy's portrait of Johann Martin Steindorff, an aristocratic fop, is unpersuasively campy. Alexander Strain and Bill Largess do serviceable turns, respectively, as the cash-strapped Georg Lenck (a compulsive pickpocket) and the dim-witted Georg Friedrich Kaufmann.
They all look striking in Kathleen Geldard's suitably fussy 18th-century costumes, complete with cloaks, lace cravats and watch-fob-ornamented vests. While attractive visuals are a perk for a production of "Bach at Leipzig," the sound design figures critically in the plot. For the Rep version, Chas Marsh supplies numerous well-tempered effects, from precisely timed snatches of baroque music to fluttering noises that evoke invisible homing pigeons.
The sound design plays a particularly crucial role in the affecting final scene, set three decades after the Thomaskirche audition. It's a coda that is all the more moving in the Rep production because it allows the adept Nelson to add a further dimension to Schott's character.
In these last few moments, "Bach at Leipzig" finally rises above the level of precocious mind games, becoming a poignant meditation on the artistic temperament and the transporting power of music.
Bach at Leipzig, by Itamar Moses. Directed by Kasi Campbell. Lighting design, Dan Covey; prop design, Dre Moore; fight and movement choreography, Lewis Shaw. With Alex Zavistovich. About 2 hours and 40 minutes. Through April 1 at the Smith Theatre, Howard Community College, 10901 Little Patuxent Parkway, Columbia. Call 410-772-4900 or visit http://www.repstage.org.