By MIKE DUNHAM
Historical dramas may be the hardest theatrical genre to get right. The facts of what happened must be honored, but real life seldom compresses neatly into three acts with climaxes and catharsis timed for maximum audience impact. Playwrights often try to make the past artificially relevant to the present, often devolving into preachiness. Or they give into what appears to be an overwhelming urge to stuff in scene-setting details that bog down the pace and distract the theater-goers’ attention from the human saga that must supply the core of any play.
“Bruckner’s Last Finale” avoids these traps and may be Dick Reichman’s best play to date. It’s intelligently crafted, meticulously informed, undiverted by extraneous secondary themes and unexpectedly funny.
The title refers to the fact that composer Anton Bruckner had not written a last movement for his Ninth Symphony when he died in 1896. The script encompasses most of his life, from his youth in a rural farming village to his sunset years as an Austrian national treasure — although one whose music was talked about much more than it was heard. His symphonies were variously described as pointless, modern, dull or masterworks; the man himself was generally dismissed as a simple-minded goof.
Reichman argues that Bruckner’s “torrent of spellbinding compositions” came from a supernatural source. He gets his music from two angels. One is formal, showing him scores supposedly written by God that Bruckner memorizes then transposes onto physical paper; how faithful or faithless he is in his transcriptions becomes an issue. The other angel seems to be more like a classic muse, reincarnated throughout his life in the several women to whom the oddball composer compulsively proposes, eternally young as he grows ever older. She directs him toward the inspiration of nature and sings to him the music he writes down. The two angels, we’re told, are colleagues.
At the start of the play, Bruckner tells students that, since God has created all notes and time, all possible music already exists. Composers simply steal it; composition is a crime. “Whenever I write something, I say 60 Hail Marys,” he says. “If it’s good, I say 100.”
Peter Porco is onstage almost constantly as the title character. He convincingly plays the bumbling, self-deprecating church organist, obsessed with corpses and counting — but not without a kind of klutzy charm and evident intelligence.
He doesn’t leave the stage until near the end of the first act, when suddenly we’re in the 20th century. Bruckner has been dead for 40 years. A musicologist who has devoted his life to preparing editions of Bruckner’s music that he thinks properly reflect the composer’s true intentions, is confronted by an officer of the Third Reich, who notes that Hitler himself is bankrolling performances of Bruckner by the best orchestras.
This initially seems like an aside, one of those diversions that so often derail historical plays. But it turns out to be key to Reichman’s thesis and the way he ultimately merges the action on the two planes — Bruckner’s life and afterlife — is impressive and effective. If Bruckner’s most pristine compositional ideas are indeed from God, then God is what the musicologist is really seeking, though so unaware of it that he dismisses possibly important fragments of the last finale even when they’re shown to him.
The scenes with the musicologist are all notably serious. Those featuring Bruckner always have a comic feel; in fact there was a lot of laughter on opening night, often in response to data as we know it. Who couldn’t laugh at the idea of a composer so unsure of his talent that he actually wrote a “Symphony No. 0”?
The meeting between Bruckner and Richard Wagner, which opens Act II, is particularly hilarious. Mark Robokoff is deliciously condescending, blustery, yet roundly entertained by his peculiar guest as they drink themselves into a stupor.
The self-righteous Wagner has a personality diametrically opposed to the humble Bruckner. He admits that he’s so egotistical that he can’t even conceive of another person writing music. Bruckner contends that it’s all someone else’s music. No mortal, he says, could have written Wagner’s “Tannheuser,” “Not even you, Master.”
At the end of the scene the muse appears. Wagner can see her, but he can’t hear the music she’s singing for Bruckner.
Porco is the only performer in a single character. The others, including Robokoff, juggle multiple roles. Ralph Lynch is the musicologist and Bruckner’s Bishop. Don Love is the student, Hugo Wolf, who also serves as a narrator in several places. Sarah Baird is both of the angels and all of the women — some of whom merge into the muse in the middle of a scene.
Reichman’s previous historical play, “The Big One,” was a take on the Exxon Valdez Oil spill that succeeded both as chronology and theater; it has found audiences outside Alaska since it’s premiere at Cyrano’s in 2009. “Bruckner’s Last Finale” contains a mystical element absent in the sprawling oil spill saga, much of which quotes actual documents verbatim. But it lovingly focuses on one person and that, perhaps, gives it a soul — a much livelier soul than I would have expected given its subject.
A final note to those who don’t care a thing about music or history. You don’t need to in order to enjoy this play. It works quite well as a quasi-comedy that raises questions beyond itself. It relies, however, on the old deus ex machina device in a big way. And that may put off some who feel that theater, art and thought in general should be concerned with tangible realities.
So, if you’re not open to the possibility of angels, as a dramatic device if nothing else, you may not be able to hear their song.
“Bruckner’s Last Finale” will be presented at Cyrano’s, 413 D St. at 7 p.m. Thursdays-Saturdays and 3 p.m. Sundays through Dec. 2. Tickets are available at centertix.net.
Reach Mike Dunham at firstname.lastname@example.org or 257-4332.