Historical dramas are tough to get right. The facts must be honored, but real life seldom compresses neatly into two acts with climaxes and catharsis timed for maximum audience impact. Playwrights often succumb to urges to make the past artificially relevant to the present, becoming preachy, or stuff in scene-setting details that slow the pace and distract 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 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 farming village to his sunset years as an Austrian national treasure and recounts how 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. In the play he gets his music from two angels, described as colleagues. One is formal, showing him heavenly scores that Bruckner transposes onto physical paper; how faithful or faithless he is in his transcriptions becomes an issue. The other angel is 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.
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. "Composing is a crime," he says.
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 possessing a kind of clutzy 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 correcting editions of Bruckner's music is confronted by an officer of the Third Reich. Hitler will bankroll performances of the musicolgist's editions, as long as they include some things the musicologist thinks should be left out.
This initially seems like an authorial misstep. But it turns out to be key to Reichman's thesis. The action on the two planes -- Bruckner's life and afterlife -- merges effectively. The scenes with the musicologist are mostly serious. Those featuring Bruckner always have a comic feel; in fact there was a lot of laughter on opening night. Who couldn't laugh at the idea of an artist 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 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 evaluate another person's music. Bruckner contends that it's all someone else's music. No mortal, he says, could have written Wagner's "Tannheuser," "Not even you, Maestro."
At the end of the scene the muse appears. Wagner can see her, but he can't hear the music she sings for Bruckner.
Porco is the only performer in a single character. The others, including Robokoff, juggle multiple roles with admirable agility and mercurial costume changes. 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 -- who can meld into the muse. Director Bob Pond zips actors on and off the minimal set with slick precision. But the uneven European accents are unnecessary; several main character's don't have them.
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.
You don't need to care about either music or history in order to enjoy this play. It works quite well as a quasi-comedy that raises questions beyond itself. It relies, however, on deus ex machina in a big way. That may put off some who feel that theater, art and thought in general should be concerned with tangible realities.
But 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.
Reach Mike Dunham at email@example.com or 257-4332.
By MIKE DUNHAM