Wednesday, October 24, 2007

Review of "Amadeus" at the Wilma Theatre, published in Edge Philadelphia

In his landmark study on envy, the Austrian sociologist Helmut Schoeck alleged that “the greatest civilizing effect of Christianity lay in its ability to temper the destructive influences of envy.” Of course, Schoeck wrote this before he could have seen Peter Shaffer’s play Amadeus, especially the tersely-crafted, mesmerizing production now onstage at the Wilma Theatre.

In Amadeus, Christianity's instead the force that motivates an envy-driven hatred—at least for Salieri (Dean Nolen), the Viennese Court Composer who believes in a God that makes real and irreversible bargains with men. As a 16 year old, he promises the heavens that he will lead a life of virtue in exchange for musical ability, so that he can speak the pure language of God, and serve as a vessel to glorify Him on earth.

However, years later, when the younger, more brilliant (though less successful) Mozart (Drew Hirshfield) arrives in Vienna, Salieri instead hears God’s voice “spoken through an obscene child. Accusing God of reneging on their agreement, Salieri vows to destroy Mozart, and thereby block God’s presence on earth.

Or so this 18th C. composer of operas claims in his final composition, performed for a “conjured audience,” and entitled, “The Death of Mozart,” or “Did I Do It.”

In Shaffer’s drama, Mozart comments on the difference between plays and opera, arguing that the latter—by using music to intensify and evoke dramatic action—represents the supreme form of drama. With many other plays I’m inclined to agree, but to director Jiri Zizka’s credit, the caliber of his production of this stage play entranced me as much as most of the operas I’ve ever seen. His lightning quick pacing, the inclusion of Mozart’s music to intensify Salieri’s anguish, his choice of how to have Hirshfield play Mozart, and stunning projected backdrops take a play infused with esoteric stretches of narratives where the central conflict is fought between Salieri and an unseen God, and ignites it into an emotionally-charged sensory explosion on the stage.

While the Oscar winning movie (and many stage productions I’ve seen) focus on the “Mozart-as-boy-genius” aspect of his character—with “boy” as the operant term—Zizka and Hirshfield’s approach instead portrays him as a musical talent who can’t fully make himself a servant to those he considers incompetents that should rightly get out of his way. Hirshfield’s Mozart—almost a boy Nietzsche—can’t (or won’t) control his tongue, offending everyone, not only increasing the tension by enraging Salieri, but also lessening the effects of Salieri’s wickedness.

This choice clearly pays off, when toward the end of the play, Salieri asks the audience, “which of you would refuse the opportunity to block a disliked human rival?” and the barely controlled silence showed at least a partial belief in his justification of a wickedness that carried the evening’s tension.

Of course, the production would suffer by more than degrees without Nolen’s Salieri. Compelling from his first throaty-voiced moments on stage, he proves no less a maestro dramatically than the much-maligned composer was musically, and makes it difficult to believe that someone so charming and sparkling could behave so viciously. Moreover, he balances these elements with such precision—only allowing the scales to tip decidedly in the closing moment of the play—entrancing with a subtle evolution of character that’s a devilish delight to watch.

The remainder of the cast serves to either increase the humor— Christian Kauffmann’s delightful stooge of an Emperor, and Pete Pryor and Jared McLenigan’s “little winds” blowing rumors through Vienna while updating the chronological backdrop of the play—or function as the obstacles Salieri sets along the path of Mozart’s destruction. Only Mary Rasmussen, as Mozart’s wife Constanze, shows the sense of defending loyalty and sympathy to Mozart’s plight (that perhaps we should all feel), in her apt portrayal of a boarding-house owner’s daughter unsure of how to function when elevated to a world above her upbringing.

Robert Pyzocha’s set design festooned the entire theatre space with long white draperies, fittingly contrasting the sense of innocence in Salieri’s rendition of his story with the cobwebbed sense of history conveyed in the dust and spider web covered chandeliers hanging above the audience. And though the text has someone call Mozart’s coat “vulgar,” Janus Stefanowicz’s costumes capture nothing less than the spirit of pure pageantry that dominated the aristocratic era.

In our age, we’re used to seeing men war with other men because of God; Shaffer’s play provides an intriguing example of one man warring against another to spite Him. While there’s something initially admirable about a man who engages in pitched combat with a deity (even if today we lack the pleasure of justifying our envy-driven abuse in this manner) the Wilma shows everything that’s admirable about a production that brings this battle to life.

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