Somewhere in the middle of the first act of Bach at Leipzig, I realized that I was already plotting my next trip to UC Santa Cruz's Theatre Arts Mainstage to see this wonderful play at least one more time before it closes on August 31, 2008. I don't pretend to be the world's most seasoned theatergoer, but this is the best thing I've seen since I had the good fortune last summer to attend a Royal Shakespeare Company performance of Henry IV, Part II in Stratford-upon-Avon, with the great David Warner as Falstaff. Now Bach and Henry could not be more different, and I suppose some might say that the comparison is perhaps a bit heady, but I left both performances similarly exhilarated, filled with the same sense that I had just witnessed a play that was not only entertaining and superbly performed, but also, in its own modest way, important.
The play opens with 18th-century organist and composer Johann Friedrich Fasch (Stephen Caffrey) standing in a pool of light, reading a letter that he is about to release by carrier pigeon to his wife, Anna. Costumed in a green velvet coat that's richly trimmed in gold brocade, with traditional buckled shoes at his feet and gray hose to his breeches (B. Modern lavished similar detail upon each of the play's seven characters), and crowned with a stunning wig of long curly locks that sits on Caffrey's head like a mane tops a lion's (Jakey Hicks's hairpieces somehow captured each character's personality perfectly), we know from the first words out of Fasch's mouth that playwright Itamar Moses is not going to be playing this one entirely straight. While Moses is obviously serious in his meditations about art, religion, and free will, he also appears to be equally serious about not taking such fraught topics too seriously. "My darling Anna," Fasch begins, "By the time you receive this letter, I will have sent it." Such Marx Brothers-meet-Yogi Berra logic permeates Moses's hilarious and intelligent piece. Before long we will come to anticipate such pronouncements, occasionally they will prompt a groan, but we laugh, sometimes against our better judgment, as if, like the characters in Moses's play repeatedly complain, we had no choice.
As Fasch's letter brings his wife, whom he addresses by a string of pet names, each more ridiculous than the last, and us to the anteroom of the Thomaskirsche in Leipzig, 1722, the lights come up and we see that Georg Balthasar Schott (Larry Paulsen) has been sitting at the church's door throughout Fasch's speech. Fasch, we have learned, is here because his former teacher, the great Johann Kuhnau, who as the head of the Thomasschule once showed Fasch unparalleled favor before naming another as his favorite, has summoned Fasch to his side because he is dying and wishes to choose a successor to what is the most prestigious post for an organist in all of Germany. Fasch, of course, assumes that his teacher has had a change of heart about which of his students was his favorite after all. Blinded by his desire for reconciliation, Fasch sets aside his conviction that man guides his fate after birth, trading it instead for the convenient certainty that destiny has brought him to this particular time and place to teach a new generation of Johanns and Georgs that predestination is nonsense. Fasch may fancy himself a clear-eyed progressive, but like the rest of the characters in this play, and by implication, us, he can also be a fool.
Schott has not been as blessed as Fasch was when it comes to the affections of Kuhnau. Though he grew up in Leipzig and is an accomplished enough musician to have become a peer of Kuhnau's as the organist of a less prestigious church, Schott never attended the Thomasschule or had the opportunity to study under Kuhnau. Schott wears these slights openly on his ample, black sleeves. His history and psychological wounds are just a few of the many reasons why he feels so proprietary when it comes to granting a string of rivals, beginning with Fasch, access to Kuhnau, who is playing a private concert for himself inside. "What brings you here?" he asks Fasch suspiciously. "Stagecoach, primarily," comes the reply. "And, for this last portion, my feet." Ba da bump.
And so the farce begins in earnest, as Moses, with a good deal of excellent accompaniment from director Art Manke, mines this traditional (in other hands, tired) theatrical form to its fullest. On a certain level, Bach at Leipzig is as substantial as a bag of cotton candy from the boardwalk down the hill, a sack of empty calories whose spun circumstances and slapstick humor seem entirely at odds with an 18th-century costume piece about a group of back-stabbing, German Lutheran organists. But Moses's writing is so smart, his jokes so well timed, and his characters so sympathetically drawn that we embrace the disconnect.
I don't want to ruin the rest of the play for you by revealing anything that comes next, but I'd be remiss not to at least mention the fine performances of this tight-knit company of actors. Caffrey is commanding as Fasch, the free spirit whose early rejection of the Lutheran principle of predetermination no doubt clouded the affections of his dear Kuhnau. Especially good is his speech early in the second act (a tip of the cap to lighting designer David Lee Cuthbert, who managed to build a prison out of nothing but shadows) when, in encouraging Anna to write a fugue, he reveals to the audience what must have been one of the then-24-year-old Moses's motivations to write a farce about an arcane corner of music history, set in the very quaint-sounding Age of Enlightenment, no less. (Why, you have to wonder, wasn't Moses writing a prequel to any of the numerous comic-book franchises that every summer splatter like June bugs in the teeth of Hells Angels on the screens of suburban multiplexes? Did his emails to Burbank to help shape the latest Broadway musical version of the latest mediocre Disney cartoon go unanswered? Happily for us, he chose to burrow deeply into this profound and silly story.)
Paulsen is equally good, entertaining us as his character careens between tenderness and duplicity, surprising us when he explodes in controlled Lutheran rage. The gambling forger Georg Lenck (Allen Gilmore) was perhaps my favorite of the bunch. His noble facade, punctured by his endless schemes to separate everyone he meets from his coin, make his final crumbling almost heartbreaking (okay; it's mostly just funny). Drew Foster (Johann Martin Steindorff), Paul Vincent O'Connor (Georg Friedrich Kaufmann), and Mike Ryan (Johann Christoph Graupner) round out the fine cast. Foster is an imperious brat, who gets to turn the other cheek, shall we say, in act two. O'Connor is absolutely terrific as Foster's dottering enemy, who, true to the farce form, knows a good deal more about life and art than his bumbling and blustery exterior lets on. I liked this guy (both the actor and his character) a lot. And then there's Ryan, whose clown-like fright wig, expressive face, and well-founded paranoia perfectly mirrors his character's fate, if that's what we may call it in the context of this play, to be acclaimed as the second greatest organist in all of Germany.
And what of Johann Sebastian Bach, you ask, the organist in the play's title? See you at the show.
Bach at Leipzig runs through August 31, 2008, on the Theatre Arts Mainstage at UC Santa Cruz. Tickets are $12 to $44. For tickets and information visit santacruztickets.com or call 831-459-2159.