Three Johanns grapple with three Georgs as all vie for the cherry, lifetime appointment of kapellmeister at Thomaskirche, Leipzig, after the death of the august Johann Kuhnau. The post is, of course, ultimately assumed by the greatest Johann of them all, JS Bach. In his debut full-length play Bach at Leipzig, 29-year-old playwright Itamar Moses asks and answers the question: What might have ***image1***happened just outside Thomaskirche as the six also-ran composers schemed, plotted, wrangled and bickered? The scenario has allure either as high drama or high-concept comedy. Moses' wisdom is to plunge happily into the latter.
The wisdom of the production at Theaterwork (on the boards Wednesdays through Sundays through Nov. 19) is to allow Moses' witty, sparkling, bittersweet, fast-paced and seamlessly structured script to do the lion's share of the work. The able cast members largely choose a general attitude and stick with it, helping to clearly define each Johann or Georg from the other.
Moses, in tribute to the best conceptions of British intellectual wit Tom Stoppard, takes his cue from Stoppard's speculative "historical" comedies such as the impossibly successful Travesties (in which Tristan Tzara, James Joyce and Lenin engage in various shenanigans roughly centered on the Zurich public library). In an ironic echo of Bach at Leipzig's themes of patronage and influence, Stoppard himself wrote the foreword to Moses' published script.
It's heady stuff emerging out of a heady time, when music was inextricably bound to religious ideology, political oneupmanship among German cities, national pride and local patronage. Moses recognizes the wealth of opportunity in the situation, skillfully mining profound themes lightened by jokes ranging from the inevitable fact that all the characters are named either Johann or Georg to humor that captures the historical climate, such as when Georg Balthasar Schott (Jack Sherman) bemoans emerging liberties in music outside Germany: "We are not meant to experience pure pleasure! This is not Italy!" Schott again: "I do not know what this age will be called. But there ***image2***seems to be a distinct lack of enlightenment." Much of the humor is in this vein; inside jokes for a smart audience, capitalizing on the self-absorption and self-aggrandizement of the characters. Moses' reach also extends to verbal imitation of musical forms including fugue, a dash of physical comedy and, especially in act two, Beckett-like pungency and a touch of the absurd.
Of course, the overarching joke is that none of the desperately competitive composers lands the gig. Not impecunious con man Georg Lenck (Adam Harvey), "too poor to have a middle name," nor sententious and narcissistic Johann Friedrich Fasch, nor embittered Georg Balthasar Schott, nor party animal Johann Martin Steindorff (Jacob Mulliken), "unbelievably credulous fool" Georg Friedrich Kaufman (Dan Friedman) or the "second-best organist in Germany," Johann Christoph Graupner (Larry Lee).
David Matthew Olson's direction and the energies of the cast keep the proceedings lively as opposed to too talky and reverent. The risk of staging a new work by a young, little-known playwright (Bach had its New York premiere less than a year ago) pays off handsomely in Theaterwork's latest.