Regional Reviews: San Francisco
Also see Richard's reviews of Accidental Death of an Anarchist and Once on This Island
Perhaps best known for his inquiry into the limits of psychology in an earlier play, Equus, Shaffer takes a historical footnote and heavily fictionalizes in order to investigate the quest for fame and its flip-side, envy. Some evidence exists, mostly in letters and diaries, of a rivalry between Antonio Salieri (played by Aidan O'Reilly) and Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (George Psarras), as they both coveted attention, posts and pupils in the Viennese court of Emperor Joseph II (Ken Boswell) in the late 18th-early 19th centuries, but the preponderance of history suggests a collegial friendship. No matterSalieri's supposed jealousy, and even the rumor that he poisoned Mozart, has been the subject of numerous works since his death in 1825, and provides excellent fodder for Shaffer's witty, erudite drama.
Shaffer builds on the rumors, imagining Salieri's final night as a confession of sorts, wherein we flash back in time to witness his humble beginnings, his rise to success in the court, and the etiology of his Mozart-envy. The rivalry becomes a platform for an examination of genius, the seduction of fame, and the power of envy as it consumes and destroys the lives of the two composers.
There's another theme as well, explored in Equus and revisited here, of our relationship with our god, or gods, or the universe, or the eternalwhatever we name it, our perception of our link to some ineffable spirit that we believe must control destiny, legacy, fortune. Salieri first dedicates himself in service to God; but finding himself mocked by his own deity in Mozart's effortless genius, rededicates his efforts toward extermination of his rival, challenging God and risking damnation.
There's no surprise ending, but we watch in horror as Mozart slides into poverty and illness, his true genius going unrecognized and even scorned, as Salieri descends further into obsession and malice. We also might recognize an all-too-human desire for fame above all elsethe terrible soul-eating envy that can consume our minds and propel us into despair or bargains with fate. Shaffer touches on deep passions, dark thoughts, and the curse of mediocrity.
All these themes emerge with crystal clarity in City Lights' superb production. The play basically is a duet, a fugue really, the counterpoint of two creative lives thrown into juxtaposition, and depends on the strength of their portrayals. Psarras is positively dazzling as Mozart, capturing the childlike willfulness and crudity of the character and yet quite believably giving us glimpses of his genius. Psarras also devised the sound design for the show, providing an extra layer of actor-character oneness that is beautifully rendered, including his own piano playing. This is an astonishing, not-to-be-missed performance.
O'Reilly suffers nothing by comparison; his Salieri hits surprising notes of nuance and depth on his quest for success and fame, going from nagging doubt to a raging inferno of jealousy and betrayal. He capably takes us with him as Salieri suffers blows to his ego and shocks to his faith, subtly willing us to see ourselves as the hapless composer unwilling to be overshadowed. The scene in act two between Salieri and Mozart is a revelation.
The ensemble as a whole provides wonderful secondary characterizations, excellent backdrop for the two leads. Ron Gasparinetti's attractive set of multi-leveled platforms and soaring columns allows for numerous locations with minimal use of set pieces, including a clever scrim. Pat Tyler on costumes and Shiboune Thill on wigs have created an amazing palette of color and design befitting each character and the changes they go througha terrific visual feast. Lighting design by Nick Kumamoto is strangely dark in some scenes, but otherwise fashions some gorgeous dramatic moments.
Director Lisa Mallette has assembled a fine team for a truly marvelous, thoroughly enjoyable rendering of Shaffer's monumental work, crowned by two incredible performances in the lead roles. It's three hours long, but you won't mind in the least. Get your tickets now for what is sure to be a sell-out show.
Amadeus by Peter Shaffer, presented by City Lights Theater Company, 529 S. Second Street, San Jose; through April 19, 2014. Tickets $17 - $32; available at www.cltc.org or at 408-295-4200.
- Jeanie K. Smith