Monday, September 10, 2007

Review of PSF's Amadeus, published by EDGE Philadelphia

The seemingly smallest choice a director makes can impact the quality and effect of a production immensely. This proved especially true in the Pennsylvania Shakespeare Festival’s current production of Amadeus, where director Dennis Razze cast Salieri, the ostensible villain of Peter Shaffer’s play, with the most physically striking actor in his ensemble. After watching their production, and thinking about this choice for three days and it still strikes me as both misguided and brilliant all at once.

In Amadeus, envy’s rule of "if you can’t beat ’em, destroy them," plays out in Shaffer’s psychologically penetrating story of the competitive relationship between two 18th Century musicians - Vienna’s Court Composer Antonio Salieri, and Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. Though taking more factual liberty with history than Bush’s press secretary, Shaffer portrays the younger Mozart as an ill-mannered, inspired genius who never revised music against the upright musical mediocrity of his elder contemporary Salieri. When Mozart begins to compose and perform in Vienna, Salieri, though eminently more successful at the time, hears the superior quality of Mozart’s music and vows to destroy him.

In the play, Salieri’s hatred stems from two sources, one unfortunately common-that mediocrity rebels against superior talent; and the other particular to the play: in his youth Salieri made a bargain with God. He tells us that he offered God the following: If you let me become a great composer, I will be your voice in the world, and live my life in virtuous service to your glory.

It’s a clever, powerful and easily understandable dramatic device. Whether in hospital emergency rooms, waiting for test results, or hoping a team wins the Superbowl, everyone’s made a similar compact with the heavens. However, once Salieri hears Mozart’s music, he realizes (imagines, really) that God only pretended to agree to the bargain, giving him early success only to throw him down from a greater height. Mozart, it seems, is how God’s voice truly enters the world, and Salieri vows to become "God’s instructor" and destroy Mozart, who God favors over him.

Though inspired by the story of Cain and Abel (and a smattering of Job), Amadeus is not a religious play, but the story of envy’s wrath played out in the larger context of late 18th century ideas. Steve Burns plays Mozart perfectly (as Shaffer wrote him), the uncouth, brash genius, who lacks diplomacy, and inadvertently offends the entire Viennese Court, particularly her composer Salieri. The look of sheer innocence in Burns eyes and smile as he takes a piece of music written by Salieri and improvises upon it after one hearing, even asking, "that sounds better, doesn’t it," captures the degree of insult laden in Salieri’s later assertion that "what I did to Mozart was nothing compared to what he did to me."

But the role of Salieri is the real challenge in a play that even spites him in the title (though who would go see a play called "Salieri, patron saint of mediocrity?"), and requires a Herculean effort from any actor who must not only narrate the entire play, but rarely leave the stage while featured in nearly every scene. A megalomaniac’s role, Salieri’s journey plunges him from the exaltation of early success, to the envy and frustration that stems from being shown up by a superior talent, to the rage and madness that drive him into thinking that by destroying the life of one man, he can thereby thwart God on earth.

While William Elsman nails the sarcasm and aggrandizing self-importance of the role, he never emanates the sense of frustrated anguish at his comparative mediocrity. Instead, the audience sees a man, not only physically superior to Mozart-he’s more robust, much taller, and because of his good looks, even seems more the libertine than Burns’ boyishly impassioned Mozart-but a composer far more popular in his own time, showered with the trappings of wealth and position. In this, Elsman’s Salieri appears as merely afflicted by an unexplained hang-up stemming from his personal recognition of a superior talent gone unremarked by all those who praise his mediocrity instead.

Unfortunately, this lack of a key component of Salieri’s psychology disengages the audience, making the second half of the evening (showing Salieri’s torment while destroying Mozart) much slower than the first act, which shows the events leading up to and motivating his revenge. Elsman only gives us the effect in words, but never the why in portrayal of a sorrow seemingly out of proportion to his station in life. Yet strangely enough, this fault, though a lack on Elsman’s part, becomes a virtue for Razze’s overall production-playing a Salieri tormented by a superior genius that only he recognizes would probably alienate the audience more.

The remainder of the cast delivers solid performances, particularly Alan Coates’ upright "Baron Fugue," and the amusingly noncommittal "well there it is" attitude of Carl N. Wallnau’s Emperor Joseph, both of whom flesh out the other challenges that Mozart’s genius faces at Court. Only Janine Barris’ delightful turn as his wife, Constanze, adds any humanity and sympathy on Mozart’s side. In this production there isn’t a moment where we side with Mozart’s genius, as throughout, making it hard not to grant Salieri’s request when he asks for "not forgiveness, but understanding."

Of course, Razze eliminated any possibility for the audience to sympathize with Mozart the moment he cast Elsman as Salieri. Beyond the psychological power of the "halo effect" (the notion that physically beautiful people are also morally good), Razze’s decision, and Elsman’s completely sympathetic portrayal illustrate the idea that in the game of envy, there are no villains. Elsman never displays any spite or rancor, no bitterness in how he destroys Mozart (but of course, little regret either), and in this, the director enables every self-righteous member of the audience to see themselves sympathetically-whether when standing in the way of a younger, more qualified co-worker gunning for a promotion, or hindering their better-suited friend chasing the same object of affection.

But perhaps that’s a good thing. If we always sided with the "genius" or person of superior quality, we couldn’t laugh at Paris Hilton while sending her off to jail, we wouldn’t endorse the notion in (little-league) sports that "everyone should play equally," hell, we probably wouldn’t have the whole welfare state, and maybe not even democracy. So maybe Salieri is the hero that our unspoken, envy-driven aspirations deserve, and that idea makes casting the heroic looking Elsman as Razze’s best choice of the evening.

"I am the patron saint of mediocrity," Salieri declares, and Elsman’s portrayal must thereby find a mostly compassionate and understanding audience on any given performance, providing not only an enjoyable evening, but ’moral’ reassurance as well.

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