The new production of Itamar Moses’s ’99 play “Bach at Leipzig” directed by Austin Trow ’12 transports you to the bustling streets of Leipzig, Saxony. It’s June 1722. As you approach the Thomaskirche, you are struck by a wave of overwhelming sound – the great cantor Johann Kuhnau is exhibiting his mastery of the organ for all to hear. Unfortunately, this is to be his swan song, and soon Kuhnau dies, face-down on the keyboard.
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The story that ensues follows six musicians all named either Johann or Georg (they refer to each other by their middle names to avoid confusion) who travel from all over the Holy Roman Empire to fill the vacancy created by Kuhnau’s passing.
There is the idealistic Fausch (Kalyan Ray-Mazumder ’12), one of the master’s former pupils who left his tutelage after a falling out. Believing to have received a message from the great master just before his death urging him to return to Leipzig, Fausch leaves his wife Anna and his yet unnamed infant daughter to return to claim the cantorship.
Then there is Schott (Sho Matsuzaki ’14), a Leipzig native who, despite trying to study under the great master, was repeatedly turned down. He auditions in an attempt to redeem himself of his past rejection. He is Fausch’s frenemy: they viciously compete even though they are bound by a common past and a shared will.
There is also the thieving, heavily-indebted aristocrat, Lanck (Alexander Oki ’12), who auditions for the job with the hope of regaining his long-lost integrity and settling his debt so he can marry his mistress.
Naïve ambassador Kaufman (Jamie Biondi ’12) – a.k.a. the “credulous fool” – and womanizing Steindorff (Michael Knowles ’12) are adept musicians from rival kingdoms also auditioning for the part. The play also features armies of unseen soldiers prepping for a potential war, but in the end, the closest the play comes is a chaotic sword-fight between the musicians. Last but not least, there is Graupner (Mitchel Kawash ’12), an organist fixated by his status as “second-best” and determined to prove his musical superiority; in fact, he is so obsessed that he sews his sheet music to his thighs.
One has to praise the production team’s wardrobe choices. The actors are adorned with bright, cropped britches, a much-underestimated garment regrettably overlooked in the modern era.
The lighting design effectively enhances the individuality of each character: a spotlight is trained on each musician as they recite short monologues in which they dictate letters to loved ones (or, in Graupner’s case, to his doctor). These scenes provide insight into the most intimate thoughts of the characters. By singling them out, the lighting manages to keep the audience’s focus on the individual.
The acting was solid in most respects. Sometimes it seemed that Matsuzaki lacked confidence in comparison to the other more experienced actors.
The actors’ charged presence lends the production a palpable sense of urgency. They pace the stage, anxiously going about their conniving ways. The climactic sword fight is particularly memorable in this regard, as the pandemonium makes the fight realistic.
The play is a mixture of “Days of our Lives” and “Luther”: part soap opera, part religious PSA. The characters are sneaky, back-stabbing, marauding individuals who incessantly step on each other’s throats. It forms an intriguing medley of pathos and betrayal.
As for Bach? Bach is a Godot-like character. He’s the titular character of the play, but we only catch a glimpse of him close to the end of the play as he enters the organ room. He was delayed by the birth of his child, and he doesn’t have time for pleasantries. In the end, while the second-rate musicians fervently plot and squabble, genius leisurely enters the scene to erase them all.
“Bach at Leipzig” runs through Saturday at the Off-Broadway Theater.