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The Arts
07.30.08

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Phaedra

Photograph by R.R. Jones
Keys to the Kingdom : Paul Vincent O'Connor (Kaufmann), left, and Drew Foster (Steindorff) vie for the job of top organist in Shakespeare Santa Cruz's production of 'Bach at Leipzig.'

A Blockbuster Bach

The meta brilliance of Shakespeare Santa Cruz's 'Bach at Leipzig'

By Christina Waters


A superb cast, sparkling script and handsome design--all collaborate to make Bach at Leipzig, by Itamar Moses, the surprise hit of this season's Shakespeare Santa Cruz festival. And it's so good, so startling, so vibrantly performed, that it's hard to know just where to start flinging praise.

First off, brand-new artistic director Marco Barricelli has set his stamp on the festival with this inspired choice of contemporary work. Bach at Leipzig, a brisk comedy of ideas set near the end of the Baroque, explores the very same human concerns that consumed Shakespeare. Ambition, treachery, authenticity, freedom and death--all are interwoven in brilliant contrapuntal tones by playwright Moses. The play's clever theme is set immediately as we meet, one by one, six would-be concertmasters, gathered at Leipzig to audition for the recently vacated post of cathedral organist. Think of six Salieris attempting to outsmart each other in order to snare a key cultural position. Costumed to their very teeth in opulent wigs (kudos to Jakey Hicks) and sumptuous satin trappings (B. Modern at her best)--each distinctive and unique--the six hopefuls pitch their claim to the coveted post, then proceed to scheme, lie and sabotage their way toward the goal.

As the play unfolds, its structure and wordplay echo those of the fugues each organist will perform at his audition. Each actor portrays a theme in a single voice, which is then taken up successively by every other actor until finally all the parts are developed, embroidered and ultimately resolved. It's dazzling and yet accessible, like an overture by Handel. The wordplay--including a continuous "Who's on First" riff about the names Johan and Georg--is juicily precise. Floating high above like a shimmering descant is a very smart dissection of religious hypocrisy pitting Lutherans against Calvinists and rooting around in the trenches of predestination, religious conservatism, even--shudder--intellectual freedom. No matter that the job they seek is housed in a cathedral; nothing is sacred in Bach at Leipzig. Ideological fascism, religious warfare and national pride are all targeted by Moses' 18th-century arrivistes.

In other words, the play is utterly relevant to our sociopolitical climate, while inviting us to feast on the great issues of the Enlightenment. But if you're tempted to think that Bach is merely a brilliantly written political satire, you would be off the mark. It's also a study in the richness of human silliness, the varieties of hope and the rarity of artistic grace. Like the real-life and most famous organist of Leipzig, playwright Moses believes that great art--great music in this case--transcends the moral frailties of everyday life. And yet, Moses uses those very frailties, hilariously, to illustrate the heights of sublime artwork.

The cast is so good that, while each man can, and does, steal this or that scene, the entire group works a fluid contrapuntal magic of its own. And that's because, without giving too much away, Moses has crafted his dramatic fugue so that the differences among the actors increase dramatic texture and depth throughout. Varying in age, size, voice and mannerism, the actors are as distinctive as the individual voices in the fugue, and repeating their various tours de force, they use the stage itself as the ultimate composition, joining their voices until at last the "recital" ends.

We fall in love with each of them, and then with the whole lot of them. I must confess a special weakness for the silly-but-wise Paul Vincent O'Connor, so delicious in his cloud of white hair. Mike Ryan as the perennially second-greatest organist outdoes even his own past triumphs, and Stephen Caffrey starts up the production in a bravura soliloquy and keeps it wickedly intelligible from start to finish, with consummate counterpoint by Larry Paulsen. Kudos to director Art Manke, and especially to Barricelli, for trusting his dramatic instincts, and for gathering a company of seasoned professionals to articulate those instincts. Bach at Leipzig is everything that great, urgent, robust theater should be. And it is arguably the secret weapon of this year's festival.


BACH AT LEIPZIG plays Tuesday-Thursday and Sunday, 7:30pm (no show July 22-24, 27, 30-31, Aug. 5, 10, 12, 20, 26, 28; 2pm only Aug. 7, 24), Friday, 8pm (no show Aug. 1, 15, 22), Saturday 2pm (8pm only Aug. 9, 23). Through Aug. 31. Tickets are $12-$44. UCSC Mainstage Theater, 1156 High St, Santa Cruz. (831.459.2159; www.shakespearesantacruz.org)


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