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Seattle by David-Edward Hughes

Bach at Leipzig Launches
ACT Theatre's Season with Brio

Bach at Leipzig
R. Hamilton Wright, David Pichette, Laurence Ballard, Max Gordon Moore
Johann Sebastian Bach never presents himself onstage in the bouncy production of Itamar Moses' intelligent and often hilarious comedy Bach at Leipzig, which kicks off ACT's 41st season. But his offstage presence and celebrated body of work lend an air of emotionality to the play's closing moments, which help make it more than just an amiable farce. ACT artistic director Kurt Beattie's direction is bright and breezy or warm and wistful as needed, and the virtual ACT repertory company of local name actors melds seamlessly as an ensemble with some new faces.

Fictionalized from an actual event, Bach at Leipzig is set in Germany, circa 1722, and deals with a cutthroat competition of organist and musical director at Leipzig' Thomaskirche, left vacant by the passing of Johann Kuhnau. The six organists in the play were all considered for the job, and that's about where reality ends and playwriting begins, as these gentleman stoop to any means of artistic skullduggery necessary to win the job. Though Moses' script dawdles a bit in the first part of act one where we meet the various rivals, it establishes its time, place and specific character's quirks well, in time to spin into a really rollicking farce in act two. He also has great fun in his observations that every other musician of this era seems to have been named either Georg or Johann, and also engagingly winks at the hackneyed ploy of actors directly addressing an audience in plays, by having characters do just that.

In the two most dominant roles, Laurence Ballard as Johann Friedrich Fasch and David Pichette as Georg Balthasar Schott are at the top of their respective games. Ballard excels at creating the relatively "sane" artist in the competition, playing the role with an understated, wry sense of humor, while Pichette is equally fine as his much more driven, if not obsessed rival. Near the curtain, the pair expertly plays out an epilogue scene of sorts, set years later, after Bach has long been positioned as the victor in the competition, and though very much more subdued in tone than the rest of the play it is a triumphant and moving moment for both the actors and the playwright. R. Hamilton Wright as Georg Friedrich Kaufmann is abundantly hilarious in a role seemingly made to order for his comic eccentricity, especially in a scene where he is convinced his competitors are putting on a play, when in fact they are going at each other. John Procaccino is drolly amusing as the driven Johann Christoph Graupner, Max Gordon Moore is hilarious as Johann Martin Stendorff (especially in a scene where under the influence of opium he admits he always wanted to be a dancer), and Daniel Rappaport conveys masterful comic desperation as the sometimes cross-dressing Georg Lenck. In a silent cameo performance as "The Greatest Organist in Germany" Todd J. Bjorstrom gets solid laughs from his demeanor and the way he carries himself.

Bach at Leipzig is certainly the handsomest physical production staged at ACT in recent memory. Catherine Hunt's impeccable, wittily frilly costumes & powdered wigs surely provided much inspiration for the cast, Matthew Smucker's scenic design is grandly attractive and Michael Wellborn's lighting design is take your breath away beautiful.

I walked into Bach at Leipzig tired from the day and left refreshed. That in itself is the kind of accomplishment all productions strive for, but only rarely succeed in achieving.

Bach at Leipzig runs through May 29, 2005 at ACT Theatre. 700 Union Street, downtown Seattle. For more information go to ACT online at www.acttheatre.org.


Photo: Chris Bennion



- David-Edward Hughes



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