On the surface, Bach at Leipzig was a quick-witted comedy about six foppish organists competing for a coveted position, recently vacated due to the death of their mentor.
The pacing and dialogue were clever and quick-witted throughout the performance, which was nearly three hours long, including an intermission. In addition to its sly humor, the play drew parallels between music, religion, art and life in a subtle and masterful way, especially in the second act.
The set was minimal, with only a background and four benches. The costumes, consisting of stockings, powdered wigs and ruffled shirts, were simple but very effective. This left a heavy burden on the actors: To draw the audience into the illusion that they were in an 18th century German church with the strength of their performances alone. The task was performed admirably.
The play opened with Johann Friedrich Fasch – played by Steve Mountan – narrating a letter to his wife. Directly addressing the audience is considered the most unimaginative way to achieve plot exposition, but the play called itself out on using this device later on in the second act. Upon finishing his letter, he tied it to a messenger pigeon – implied by a simple sound-effect – which ended up being a recurring joke throughout the play. Rival organist Georg Balthasar Schott – played by Gorilla Theatre regular Steve Garland – then made his entrance, artfully twirling and posing on his cane.
The rest of the play centered on the rivalry between the musicians, who arrived one at a time in a structure that paralleled the musical form known as “fugue.” There were some ecclesiastic undertones in the animosity between Fasch and Schott, but the play didn’t hit you over the head with a religious message. In fact, it seemed to poke fun at the way the characters had such a heated debate over the minor differences between Lutheranism and Calvinism. Predestination was mentioned several times, and its paradoxical nature was the subject of some very clever jokes. Anyone who’s taken history or religion for their humanities credits is guaranteed to get a kick out of it.
The rest of the characters – each named Georg or Johann, joking that all 18th century musicians were named either Georg or Johann – were diverse and well developed. Essentially they were the penniless rogue, the spoiled brat and the gullible fool.
The play really came into its own in the second act, which began with Fasch explaining the structure of a fugue. Basically, it’s a musical composition that begins with one theme before overlapping more, successively. Each additional theme is a variation on the first, and they all intertwine a build up toward a marked climax at the end.
The second act of the play followed this form precisely, with the characters meeting up two at a time to form alliances and intrigues that were all similar in design. Also, each of the characters revealed his increasingly ridiculous method of hiding his music while traveling. One of them had it sewn to his inner thigh.
One of the characters believed that the others were putting on a play called The Unbelievably Credulous Fool. This lent the performance a self-awareness that was at once charming and brilliant. He called the play out on its narrative exposition and made some funny remarks about theatre in general, and Bach at Leipzig in particular.
The climax was a brief, five-way sword-fight – more funny than violent – followed by a few plot twists that shouldn’t be spoiled. All around, Bach at Leipzig was an absolute success.
In addition to the play, the Gorilla Theatre itself was a real treat. It’s a charming, intimate theater with the back row less than 10 yards away from the stage.
Saturday’s performance played to a full house, and it’s good to know that Tampa can support a small venue like that. The existence of underground theaters is indispensable to the development of fledgling actors and directors, and as an outlet for creativity that doesn’t require a gigantic budget or a high profile. Anyone who likes the arts would do well to check it out. Bach at Leipzig will run Thursday through Sunday until April 13. Find more information at gorillatheatre.com.