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Rep Stage's Bach at Leipzig: Survival of the Wittiest

The advertising for Rep Stage's Bach at Leipzig, which opened last weekend at its Howard Community College space, smartly draws parallels between the play and TV phenomena American Idol and Survivor.  On the face of it, the play seems like an elitist, theatre-snob's paradise: high wit, biting word play, historical context and 18th century costumes.  But the play has a very modern sensibility, offering what amounts to the kind of vicious backstabbing that must occur between contestants on Idol, and a far more intelligent version of what is seen on Survivor.

In Leipzig, Germany's greatest organist/composers have converged to audition for the coveted position of head of music and master of the music school at St. Thomas church following the death of the current head.  One by one, they are introduced to us through a series of letters they recite, sent by carrier pigeon (much like email today).  As each maestro (real or self-proclaimed) arrives, tensions mount as the scope of talent is assessed and reassessed.  In true reality show form, it isn't long before alliances are formed, broken, reformed, and scandalous lies and half-truths are spewed out under the guise of good manners and gentlemanliness.  Based on actual events, though surely not nearly as dramatic or comic in real life, it is no secret that Bach eventually wins the post, but the play still manages to leave you on the edge of your seat, first waiting for the fireworks when the men realize a dark horse has come out of nowhere, then to see how each man ends up.  Playwright Itamar Moses, just 30 this year, has written a sharp play full of farce, fun and characters you actually care about, all with a very modern sensibility.

With all of the musical jargon bandied about, particularly in regards to an old classical music form - the Fugue, you might think you'd get lost, but that is not the case.  In fact, it serves to point up this fantastic production's many delights.  First of all, the script is, for all of its word play and history, remarkably 21st century in tone and delivery.  It is also a terrific farce, complete with breathless entrances and exits, stage chases, a poisoning, a shooting (by arrow!), a kidnapping and even a fun sword fight!  Second, the play has been masterfully staged by Helen Hayes Award-winning director Kasi Campbell.  Her sense of space, timing and dramatic stage picture is flawless here, particularly in a riotous reenactment of the entire first act at the beginning of act two, while a character explains to us what a fugue is.  Lo and behold!  Act one was itself a fugue!  (Fun and educational!) 

Technically, Leipzig is also a visual feast.  The austere, very tall walls and doors and a large area of monochromatic "staiNed Glass" (designed by Milagros Ponce de Leon) at once suggest a time long gone and a very real sense of foreboding, not unlike the monumental task which each of our characters has taken on. The lighting (by Dan Covey) and skillful use of sound (designed by Chas Marsh) work together with the set in a way most shows lately seem to miss - they are one seamless design, really creating and enhancing the mood of the piece.  The costumes, designed by the always terrific Kathleen Geldard, are sumptuous, colorful and so character-specific.  Most of all they are true to the period, but look like a lot of fun to run around in for a few hours.

And finally, Campbell and her team have assembled seven of the best actors on the local stage today.  Led by the remarkable Bruce Nelson (Santaland Diaries, School for Scandal) and increasingly impressive Karl Kippola (Opus, A Man of No Importance), each actor lends a hand in creating some very impressive individual turns, and more importantly, impressive ensemble acting.  There is, apparently, nothing Mr. Nelson can't do.  One might fear, upon first seeing him in his 1722 garb, that perhaps we might see a rehash of his characters in Everyman's School for Scandal.  But to assume that is to seriously fail to recognize what a seriously talented man he is.  His way with a phrase and simple expression or carefully plotted gesture is without parallel, and yet each second he is onstage you feel like you are seeing a completely spontaneous performance.  It is toward the end of act two when a secret is revealed about his character that Nelson allows us to see a sweet vulnerability, thus making his character one you feel for.  Mr. Kippola is also a gifted actor, mining every ounce of gold of his rich lines.  His role allows for high comedy and some nice, genuine emotion.  It is easy to root for this guy.

The rest of the company is equally skilled, bringing out the obvious traits that make them types, but still making interesting and unique characterization choices so as to make them recognizable, but NOT stereotypes.  It is these small twists that endear these characters to the audience.  In the one role that could have easily become a one-note bore, Bill Largess creates a funny, yet heartwarming "fool."  His wandering about the set in search of the audition list is priceless, as is the child-like glee he has at witnessing what he believes is a play, but is really an actual argument.  David Marks also delights as the composer with high ambition and low self-esteem - when confronted with any modicum of trouble he trance-like begins to recite self help sayings!  Alex Zavistovich, in full Amadeus drag, gets the best sight gag of the night, making several grand entrances and exits as The Greatest Organist in Germany.  Each and every time he enters it is a laugh fest, and he never utters a word, even as the others report what a lovely speaking voice he has!

Even though they are a very tight ensemble onstage, and I can't imagine the show with even one cast change, two of the supporting players deserve special recognition - Alexander Strain (a delight in School for Scandal) and Matt Dunphy (making his Rep Stage debut) are both young actors to be on the look out for in the future.  Both command the stage every minute they are on it, no small fete, considering the caliber of their cast mates.  Strain plays the poorest, but most conniving of the group, and he attacks the part with visible glee.  It is a joy to see a talented actor really enjoying his work.  His cocky swagger is at once off putting and endearing, and he is quite skilled at pickpocketry.  And, I have to say he is quite a swordsman, considering he is dressed as a woman in a full length dress as he wields his rapier.  Dunphy, rail thin and pale, is self-absorbtion personified as the character most outwardly egotistical.  His primps and preens in his Bernadette Peters wig, and flounces in his subtly pink suit with joy in that time honored type - the grand fop.  One never doubts that he is proud of his conquests - several ladies, sometimes several at once.  But one never doubts either that all of that self-absorption is a veneer.  Both young actors are simply excellent on a stage chuck full of excellence.

Music lovers will likely love the in-jokes (you'll notice I haven't mentioned any of the character names - an excellent joke throughout!).  Theatre lovers will love the, well, theatricality.  But anyone who enjoys a smart, transporting evening of laughs will love Bach at Leipzig.  Book your tickets for 18th century Germany now!

PHOTOS: All by Stan Barouh.  Main Page: Matt Dunphy and Bill Largess.  TOP to BOTTOM: David Marks and Bruce Nelson; Alexander Strain and Karl Kippola; David Marks (on floor), Matt Dunphy and Alexander Strain.

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