Feeling Bach's enlightenment 
; Bach at Leipzig 
; by Empty Spaces Theatre Co.
; Through March 12 at Lowndes Shakespeare Center, 812 E. Rollins St.
; 407-328-9005
; www.emptyspacestheatre.org

Right from the start, Bach at Leipzig is a witty spoof – and yet not. After all, the closest the title character comes to making an appearance is through his music, heard only in offstage bursts. What does appear are the emotions and manipulations of six eminently forgettable German composers, all in Leipzig in June 1722 to compete for a prime job: organist at the Thomaskirche. The job, famously, went to Johann Sebastian Bach, a surprise appointment that in playwright Itamar Moses' ingenious riff on Enlightenment ideals ended up bringing his six competitors together in awe.

But only after they beg, borrow and steal from one another, clash in a swordfight (that falls just short of thrillingly swashbuckling) and tell their own stories in spotlighted soliloquies under the guise of writing letters bound for home. All that would be more than enough tension and hilarity, but director Kevin G. Becker with Seth Kubersky has pushed Moses' conceit to dizzying heights.

Jennifer Bonner's costumes are foppish and Susan Woodbury's makeup and wigs are over-the-top, particularly the tight red ringlets that Josh Geoghagan (as the amoral Georg
;Lenck) tosses – nervously or flirtatiously. By contrast, John DiDonna's spare, angular set is a neutral foil to the nonstop action, and Mary Heffernan's lighting is wonderfully eccentric, especially in scenes dominated by rapid-fire exchanges among the opinionated musicians and in low and moody quiet moments. 

Then there are the flourishes: the constant preening with lacy ruffs; the confusion over names (everyone is either a Georg or a Johann); and, in a sight gag that was funnier each time it was performed, the tiny toy pigeons each musician unfolds at the end of his letter and then throws into the air, as if it really had taken wing. There are quirks, too: As Johann Christoph Graupner, Germany's second-best organist, Kevin Sigman teeters between a smug self-satisfaction and an anxious fury that has him muttering the mantra, "Think less of them who think less of you. Think less …"

Most of all, however, the play's success depends on its kaleidoscopic mishmash of history, theology and music, all configured in a crystalline construct that reflects the mathematical purity of Bach's music. Patterns swirl through the play as each of the musicians appear, disappear and reappear in various configurations and reach their crescendo at the end, from the brilliantly choreographed swordfight to those epistolary soliloquies.

Upon learning that Bach has won the coveted church appointment, the contenders open the double door to hear his music and break into a spoken six-part fugue. It's an amazing feat that demands brisk articulation from the cast and full attention from the audience to keep up with the  breakneck pace and multiple layers of meaning. What makes it fun are the constant gags, double-entendres, puns and ironic references, thrown out so casually that some surely got away. 

It hardly matters, though. Empty Spaces' production is a baroquely dense confection and an intellectual extravaganza that toys with ideas and facts, fugues and themes. As one character says, off-handedly, he doesn't know what his era will be called – but surely it will be known for its lack of enlightenment.

— Laura Stewart

Things in between
; The Marriage Ref
10 p.m. Thursday
; www.nbc.com

Seinfeld was genius. Seinfeld, not so much. 

So the announcement that Jerry Seinfeld is back with a new reality series should be greeted with skepticism, if not outright trepidation. Seinfeld the comic is relatively bland, a dispenser of shallow, fairly obvious observations. Yet Seinfeld has a bright idea with The Marriage Ref.  

The concept is simple: Couples share their block to marital bliss with panel host comedian Tom Papa and a revolving guest list of celebrity judges (and watchers in TV land) for the "right" decision. It's easy to imagine that, done right, couples at home would delight in the petty arguments and feel superior.

But wow, the preview that aired Feb. 28 had serious problems. First off, they need to dial this show down by at least half; the audience members are amped up beyond belief. Their roar sounds like the canned stuff on America's Funniest Home Videos, and they laugh as if the humor were Seinfeld-esque. But it's not. They're cackling at lines like "You crossed the line into Wes Craven–ville" and "That, to me, doesn't say, ‘Let's get it on.' That's saying, ‘Let's go fishing.'" The celebrity panelists are no better; they laugh and applaud each other with sycophantic glee, as if every utterance were a brilliant bon mot. I, on the other hand, didn't laugh once.

The other problem with the preview: The points of contention weren't even credible. In one scenario, the husband grossed out his wife by having his beloved (now dead) dog stuffed. In the other, the husband wanted to install a stripper pole in the bedroom. Tough stuff. And the expert panel is set to include celebrities like Larry David, Alec Baldwin and Madonna – all of whom are multiple-time marriage losers. Despite all that criticism, though, I'll still give The Marriage Ref the benefit of the doubt. After all, even Seinfeld took several episodes to find the right rhythm.

— Marc D. Allan

For the better
; When Everything Changed: The Amazing Journey of American Women From 1960 to the Present
By Gail Collins
;(Little, Brown and Company, 480 pages)

Gail Collins, of The New York Times, has written an overview of the progress made by women and girls over the past half-century: ;When Everything Changed: The Amazing Journey of American Women From 1960 to the Present. Currently one of just two female op-ed columnists at the NYT, in 2001 Collins was the first woman to become the editor of the highly prestigious and powerful Times editorial pages. Women won the vote in 1920; the NYT was founded in 1851. Apparently, it took only 150 years for the "Gray Lady," as the paper's called, to accept flesh-and-blood ladies as competent enough for a top post in its opinion ranks. 

Collins has woven multiple yarns into a tapestry of the last 50 years that gives an overview of the mind-boggling progress women and girls have made during that time. She uses the accounts of regular women you've never heard of, as well as famous people familiar to most of us: Gloria Steinem, Betty Friedan and Hillary Clinton. It is interesting to note how inclusive she is of women of color, who have shared the double whammy of race and sex prejudice.

Collins opens her book with a story featuring a 28-year-old executive secretary who was thrown out of court for wearing slacks. Laughable now, the anecdote is emblematic of the rigidity of gender rules baby boomer females and their older counterparts put up with on a daily basis. Do you think dress codes are so … yesterday? Think again. It wasn't until 1995 that the state of California, America's bastion of liberal values, gave women the right to wear trousers to work.

Collins' genius lies in the agile way that she pulls so many disparate people and issues together into one seamless narrative. My only complaint is that Collins herself is missing; her story as a female journalist working for the most important newspaper in our country is an important one. We would love to read about the "ink ceiling" she and her colleagues have put up with over the years. The media, including print and broadcast, has been instrumental in defining "all the news that's fit to print," which often omits the spectrum of women's voices. Sadly, Collins and Maureen Dowd (the other female op-ed columnist at the Times) are basically tokens. We will not achieve true equality until the full spectrum of women's points of view is amply represented. We are still not there.

— Ellen Snortland

; [email protected]
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