For an artist, perhaps the worst fate isn’t the antipathy of critics or the hostility of the public. It’s the awareness that one’s work is neither great nor terrible, merely mediocre. For the once notable and now forgotten 18th-century composer Antonio Salieri, this agonizing sense of his own mediocrity forms the pivot around which the tragedy of Amadeus spirals.
The Tony award-winning play by Peter Shaffer made its debut in 1979, but there’s nothing dated about its themes of thwarted ambition and professional jealousy. It is, however, a tricky play to stage, rife with long monologues directed at the audience, rapid changes of scene and time, and snatches of complex music that must be produced at just the right moment to provide counterpoint to the dialogue. The new production at Redmond’s SecondStory Repertory, which opened on April 6, is a refreshing study in simplicity that allows the layers of the play to gracefully unfold.
On the last night of his life, elderly Salieri (Gerald Browning) summons the audience to hear his final confession: 32 years earlier he murdered rival composer Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. Ludicrous as this assertion is, playwright Shaffer builds a convincing psychological study around what reads, on its face, as the ranting of a senile old man.
Browning’s transformation from wizened to vital middle age and back again, as he reenacts his supposed crime, is accomplished with a dexterity that makes the three-hour production breeze along. Though our narrator is also the villain of the piece, Browning evokes nothing but pity and a dark sense of identification with the bitterly jealous composer.
Salieri is a man who, at age 16, made a very canny bargain with God to trade moral and upright living for a brilliant career in music. And it seemed that the deal was agreed to by the deity, until Mozart hit town. This creature, “beloved of God” as his middle name and the play’s title suggest, is the first test of Salieri’s resolve. A test which he fails spectacularly and repeatedly over the course of several years that he lives in Vienna near Mozart.
Salieri first encounters Mozart after making a name for himself as court composer for Emperor Joseph II in Vienna, a location he calls the “city of musicians.” He has heard of the boy genius of course, as has all of Europe, but he has never met the now-grown man. Salieri's assumptions about the composer he had believed to be divinely inspired are swiftly shattered in a single devastating scene, to be replaced with loathing for what he considers an immature, obscene beast of a man. And when Mozart moves to Vienna, Salieri finds himself with a ready-made rival.
As written, Shaffer's Mozart is an immature buffoon. A genius, yes, but with the emotions, sense of humor, and socially inappropriate reactions of the child prodigy he once was, trapped in the body of an obscene, licentious man. Actor Brandon Ryan's interpretation of the nursery rhyme spouting, scatologically obsessed composer is somewhat troubling. Ryan’s portrayal hovers on the edge of severely over-the-top throughout the evening. Which isn’t necessarily a poor choice by Ryan or director Corey McDaniel.
Like an extremely wound-up early Jim Carrey or Adam Sandler, Ryan flings himself around the stage and at his fellow actors with reckless abandon. He shrills his lines like a demented 7-year-old boy soprano, clapping compulsively and giggling ceaselessly. He constantly and determinedly threatens to prove himself the single most annoying person ever to force themselves upon the patience of an audience. Which, again, isn’t necessarily a bad thing.
Mozart, in Salieri’s eyes, is a vile creature. He deserves to be destroyed — and not just because he is musically superior to the Italian composer by quantum leaps and bounds. The younger man is more than a threat — he’s an abomination. And for some reason, he’s favored by God in a way that Salieri, for all his superficial success, is not. While Mozart is God’s mouthpiece, Salieri is merely a hack.
The design team for Amadeus provides able support for the ensemble of performers through tastefully minimalist artistic choices. Janessa J. Styck’s costumes are sumptuous, the satin gowns and velvet knee breeches lush with details of delicate lace and fluttering ribbons, and coupled with judicious fabric selection and sharp tailoring. Likewise Mark Chenovick's set makes shrewd use of subtle distinctions of space, from the desk-cum-harpsichord-cum-bed, to the delicately filigreed windows that do double duty as cages for gossiping Viennese aristocrats, to the looming shadows painted across the stage floor.
It’s unlikely that the production’s design budget was high (this is a theater situated on the second floor of a mall, after all), but the polished staging belies that impression. For the company, which has been in business since 1999, the play is an impressive penultimate production for the Eastside theater's 2011-2012 season.
If you go: Amadeus runs through April 29 at SecondStory Repertory. $20-$25. For tickets, visit www.secondstoryrep.org.
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