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Musical Airs

Rogue Theatre’s new production ends up being discordant rather than deep.

Sherilyn Forrester Nov 9, 2017 1:00 AM

Now onstage at the Rogue Theatre is a humorous but perplexing piece that strives too hard to be too much. As a result, aside from some laughs and pleasant wit-bits, the play doesn't serve up the satisfactory banquet playwright Itamar Moses clearly thinks he has prepared.

In Bach at Leipzig, Moses teases us to tuck into what we think will be a hardy—and heady— dinner, but ends up providing the nutrition of a Happy Meal. Now, there may be a place for Happy Meals, but one is bound to be disappointed if your invitation has promised a feast.

The feast here would involve six organist-composers vying for the top music post at the Thomaskirche in Leipzig in 1722, after the death of Johann Kuhnau, who had held the post for years. In town for auditioning are Johann Friedrich Fasch (Joseph McGrath), a serious-minded sort of guy who had studied with Kuhnau but had a philosophical break with his mentor about the purpose of music. Georg Balthasar Schott (Ryan Parker Knox) has been hanging around for his chance, but since he'd never been chosen to be a student at the maestro's school, his chances are iffy. Then there's Georg Lenck (Matt Walley), a jovial and slick pickpocket, seriously in debt, who thinks he's got a shot; Johann Martin Steindorff, (Hunter Hnat) an organist who would have preferred to be a dancer; and Johann Christoph Graupner (David Weynand), an elegant but hapless screw-up whose timing is so off so that his entrances are always upstaged. There's also Georg Friedrich Kaufmann (Michael Bailey), the mayor of the city who gets just about everything wrong.

Each schemes and plots with a competitor and then teams and plots with another. There are so many deals being struck that we become bewildered, which might be fine—and fun—if anything purposeful ever got sorted out. But because Moses' chief interest seems to be clever dialogue and quips about ideas, the development of the conspiracies are about as much of a plot as we get. And how they play out is more told us than shown us.

There is no doubt that Moses sets this all up as a substantive piece. Early on he throws out ideas about the purpose of music. He hints at theological arguments between Lutherans and Calvinists and the doctrine of predestination. In the first 45 minutes or so, we are intrigued with what might be going down here. And he plays us with enough humor that we feel his will be a clever and entertaining tale. 

It is to a certain degree. We hang in with him, but are disappointed as it seems Moses becomes less interested in probing meaty themes than in being clever. He's a Tom Stoppard wannabe but demonstrates neither the skill or the intellect that Stoppard reveals in plays like Arcadia, which Rogue produced quite wonderfully several years ago, and Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead, which they produced in rep with Hamlet fairly recently. It's easy to see how the Rogues would be tantalized by Moses' script, but in the end they got conned. Moses is no Stoppard.

Even if we give ourselves over to the idea that Moses has us negotiating a maze and are diligently intent on finding the fun, we ultimately discover that we're not in a maze at all, but are negotiating another self-conscious device. The first act has been written in the style of a fugue, we are told in the second act, a revelation that has the sad double edge of Moses being the oh-so-clever playwright who is not quite clever enough to be sure we know this without having to be told. He then proceeds to create what seems to Kaufmann to be a play within a play, but the players have no clue why Kaufmann delights in addressing the audience with comments that stab at thoughts about theater's means and manners. It's a bit of fun, but again, Moses is not skilled enough to ensure those ideas really go somewhere.

The Rogues make a heartfelt stab at Moses' tomfoolery. We know and appreciate most of these actors and their skills, and they each try to invent characters of a genuine sort. (Bailey's is a new face, and I'm not so sure about him. His performance often seemed like he was doing an imitation of Martin Short imitating Martin Short.) But although they tickle our funny bone, they can never break out of the cages that Moses has put them in. There is no there, there, in any of them.

Director Cynthia Meier tries to find a dramatic principle around which to build a show—if not worthy ideas woven richly with witticisms, maybe just a high-brow farcical type thing. But what she's given to work with never coalesces into something either intellectually intriguing or sublimely funny and certainly not both at the same time. The repetition of the joke about everyone being named either Johann or Georg eventually falls flat. And that meaty, intriguing predestination thing? Nah. Just sucks us into thinking we've got something of import going on in all this clever, high-brow chatter.

Meier and her elves have created lovely costumes, and the set is minimal but provides what's needed. Jake Sorgen's choices for music are fine. Violinist Vicki Brown's pre-show music is lovely. 

The production feels long and also like it hasn't quite found its footing. But then Moses really hasn't given it much to stand on. It's far, far from a worthless evening of theater, but it ultimately it disappoints because Moses doesn't deliver what he promises. It's just a pretty expensive Happy Meal.