Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Bach at Leipzig in Santa Cruz

Itamar Moses, a young playwright, wrote the first play I saw at Shakespeare Santa Cruz
this year. At 31, he's a prodigy. "Bach at Lepizig" is a brilliant play filled with perfect comic banter as four would-be professors at the Thomas Schule audition for what they think is the most important position in German culture while a war brews outside. He manages to accomplish this with overlapping epistolary frames carried by unseen pigeons and the Shakespearean quirk of a play within a play that isn't actually a play but a device turning the production into a meta-play. At one point, Georg (everyone in the play is called Georg or Johann) writes a letter to his wife from prison, describing how to write a fugue. The already elegant description is made more elegant by the accompanying musical fugue playing in the background, building as Georg adds each voice. Then later, as if we didn't understand, all the Georgs and Johanns come out and speak lines in a way that they are all heard, but none completely understood, what we understand, oddly is the way a fugue works and consequently the way this and every other work of art captures us.

The Santa Cruz production, the Bay Area debut, was quite good. People loved it. I loved it. I guffawed at moments and moved to the edge of my seat in suspense at others. Director Art Manke blocked it so that the stage's shape became a tool rather than a hindrance to tell the story. I mean that I have seen too many plays this year on half-moon stages that ignore their shape and end up leaving out huge portions of the audience. Not so, here, and the costumes and lighting were masterful and downright impressive. The actors' comic timing was charming, and you got the feeling that they all knew each other very well and were having a great time together on stage. There was a chemistry on stage that permeated into the audience, and everyone had a wonderful time. As far as new plays, contemporary plays by living playwrights, this is one of the best I have seen in a long time.

In the spirit of remaining critical, though, the sword fight went on a bit longer than it needed to after we got the point that Johann is a dancer. It seems to be a twitch for directors to think that audiences come to plays with swords for the sword fights. But long vaudevillian bits with swords don't work because we live in a world where spectacle is available at a much higher caliber at the click of a mouse. I've never heard anyone say, "I wish that fight scene had gone on longer."

Other than that, though, what a play and what a production! I can't wait to see what else Shakespeare Santa Cruz has up its sleeve this season.

Bach at Leipzig runs until August 31, 2008

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