The Falcon | Volume 83, Issue 52
Published 5/22/13 | Log In
Play delivers laughs and an apt message
By KELSEY CHASE, Staff Reporter
Published: January 23, 2013
The setting: Leipzig, Germany, 1722. The occasion: the recent and unexpected death of the town’s premier organist, Johann Kunau. The main attraction: the most talented, eccentric and ambitious musicians Germany has to offer.
Consider this your invitation to the Seattle Pacific University Theatre Department’s production of Bach at Leipzig, opening Thursday night on the E.E. Bach Theatre stage at McKinley Hall.
“It’s fun and farcical,” said director and associate professor of theatre Andrew Ryder. “I picked it because I love the message that there’s something bigger than our disagreements, but also because it really makes you laugh.”
Ostensibly to honor the deceased organist, the gathering of musicians is really quite opportunistic: the position of organmaster at Leipzig is open and auditions will decide the replacement.
Enter Johann Freidrich Fasch, Johann Martin Steindorff, Johann Christoph Graupner, Georg Balthasar Schott, Georg Freidrich Kaufmann and Georg Lenck. Apparently, all noteworthy German musicians are christened Johann or Georg.
Thankfully, the originality they lack in monikers is made up for in personality. Fasch, played by Tucker Goodman, can be distinguished by his less-than-orthodox Lutheran beliefs and a circumspect dependence on opium. His nemesis, both religiously and competitively, is Schott (Alex Reverman), the Leipzig native entrenched in his formulaic Lutheranism and dogged by rejection from Kunau’s school.
They’re joined by a more economically diverse pair. Steindorff (Jeremy Kidd) is a rich, young fop roped into music by his father and more interested in the choir girls than the choral score. In contrast, Lenck (Gabriel Adams) is too poor even to afford a middle name and alternately invents illnesses and cross-dresses in an attempt to milk his rich fiancée and finance his gambling debts.
He also may or may not be the instigator of a small war between Steindorff’s town and Kaufmann’s, played by Daniel Escobedo. A heated exchange of provocative letters regarding religious differences has resulted in both towns’ armies marching against Leipzig in search of the perpetrator. Unfortunately caught in the cross-fire is Graupner (Connor Thomas King), the perpetually and irreconcilably second-best organist in Germany.
With six similar voices, it was important to Ryder to make sure your Johann’s and Georg’s don’t get crossed up. He’s pleased with the way each actor has embraced and developed their own sense of each character; “they were already excited and playing off each other at callbacks,” he said.
Also helpful in distinguishing who’s who is the distinctive and period-accurate costuming of Theatre Chair Don Yanik. The organists are a rainbow of colored frock coats, frothing lace ruffle, and characteristic, but always curly, hairstyles.
This attention to detail stands out well against a stark, abstract set of tilted white panels crabbed over with music scores and cut to allow several doorways. A large, brown door at deep center stage is the only other adornment.
Such simplicity allows for the organists’ dialogue and monologue to be the main focus. Throw a group of self-confident, opinionated, and highly ambitious men into competition and what do you get? An intentionally repetitive yet varied discussion on the sects of Lutheranism; the balance of form and content; and the doctrines of free will and predestination.
Not to mention blackmail, forgery, gambling, bribery, wenching, faked illness, robbery, drugs, adultery and kidnapping. And we can’t forget the excellently choreographed and quite–violent swordfight that manages to leave all parties intact.
In fact, if this is a discussion on the value of form and content, it’s clear the organists’ petty and duplicitous arguments and arrangements as they position themselves before the audition do little good. The appearance of the greatest organist in Germany, delightfully cameo-ed here by a rotating member of SPU’s male faculty, eliminates the competition.
Yet when he and the consistently second-rate Graupner both turn down the post, it falls to a fourth mysterious Johann: Johann Sebastian Bach. While Bach never makes an appearance onstage, his presence is evident throughout – the scores displayed on the set and in the music faintly heard through the cathedral door.
It is his music that transcends the trifling religious questions, which Steindorff observes are “irreconcilable because they are almost exactly the same.” It resolves questions of form and content by encompassing both in a divine melody of the sacred and the secular.
And in a play that relies so heavily on six cacophonous voices each singing their own tune, spouting their own doctrine, it is Bach’s music that cuts through the dissonance in the grand and swelling musical fugue. At last there no individual monologues, but a score of musical mastery that combines six strands of melody, subject and countersubject, into a melodious and transcendent whole.
As historical as Bach at Leipzig may be, its message is no less significant for a contemporary audience. In a world of verbal swordfights, doctrinal splits and grating opinion, the presence of a united music of faith is lacking. And if Bach can quell religious and political tension with great music, it is only as his last notes fade that we recognize a greater truth: “he makes even the silence gorgeous.”
Bach at Leipzig was written by Itamar Moses in 2005.