GRAPPLING WITH ART AND EXISTENCE Rival composers.
The Thomaskirche church, in Leipzig, is a hub of musical influence in Germany’s booming Baroque arts scene. But one day in 1722, its music director suddenly takes a header onto the organ’s middle range of keys (or, as one tart tongue pricelessly puts it, “The man performed his own dirge with his face”) and leaves this world amid an agony of sustained dissonance. In his wake, a slew of brilliant composers — eight, in all — descend upon Leipzig, each hoping to be chosen as his successor. What follows is the intricate comedy Bach in Leipzig, Itamar Moses’s literary rendition of a fugue, a musical composition in which a series of distinct voices are interwoven in point and counterpoint.
The voices of this dramatic “fugue” belong to distinct character types, each with his own philosophy of Lutheranism and music. Tom Butler plays the bright-eyed, forward-thinking idealist Johann Fasch, a stark contrast in both tone and stature to Tom Ford’s stout, curmudgeonly, oft-rejected, and very orthodox Georg Balthasar Schott. Georg Lenck (the fetchingly wicked Colby Chambers) is the charismatic working-class scalawag; Georg Friedman Kaufmann (Daniel Noel, adorably) is the fool; Johann Martin Steindorff (a manic Dustin Tucker) is the blue-blood womanizer; and Johann Graupner (Ron Botting, with sensual pout) is the perpetual loser. As the men scheme, cajole, and parry — sometimes one-on-one, sometimes all at once — they outline the era’s complex conversations about art and existence.
Director Samuel Buggeln’s crackerjack cast is nimble, and Portland Stage Company’s production is lavish as usual: Wilson Chin’s set is an august forced-perspective white hall of the Thomaskirche, with high arched doorways arrestingly lit from the wings (Philip S. Rosenberg’s lighting design), and Kris Hall has given gorgeous attention to detail in her period costumes. Throughout the show we hear Portland municipal organist Ray Cornils on the Kotzschmar Organ, playing transporting snatches of organ fugues.
The literary fugue that structures the play is meant to celebrate artifice, much like the elaborate art forms of the Baroque period itself. At the same time, Moses gleefully sends up his own artfulness by inserting a play-within-a-play, as Kaufmann watches — and critiques — the composers’ endless exchanges as dramatic art. Written in an unabashedly punny and slapstick style (which includes, for example, running gags on the German music world’s preponderance of Georgs and Johanns), all this plays throughout most of the show as complex but light, despite the gravity of the ideas about religion and art — free will versus predestination, content versus form — that it whizzes about.
Moses has been frequently compared to Tom Stoppard for the intricacy of his dramatic devices and his attempts to synthesize, through characters and comedy, big ideas across disciplines.
In Stoppard’s best works, like Arcadia, he makes us care about and shiver at the complexities of big ideas through first caring about his profoundly human characters. Moses, in contrast, carries out his impressive intellectual exercise with caricatured characters that are cleverly drawn, but feel a little hollow; Moses ultimately engages our wit, not our empathy.