An Intimate, Lively and Enlightening Amadeus
Also see Bob's review of With and Without
It is 1823, and there are whispers circulating throughout Vienna that the aged and dying Antonio Salieri has been overheard by his valet and cook to have confessed to poisoning Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart more than thirty years earlier. Salieri conjures us, his yet unborn audience, so that we may bear witness to his confession. He relates events which occurred over the course of a decade (1781-1791), beginning with Mozart's arrival at the court of Emperor Joseph II and concluding with Mozart's death at the age of 35.
Salieri, who has led an exemplary life, is the popular court composer whose mundane works are widely praised and performed. He will rise to the position of first royal Kapellmeister. Mozart, who is profane, sharp tongued and given to juvenile antics, fails to attain traction either within the court or with the public, both personally and as a composer. Only Salieri knows that Mozart is a sublime composer, effortlessly creating transcendent, heavenly music too advanced and complex for immediate acceptance. It is this recognition which leads Salieri to plot against Mozart to the detriment of the latter's status and health. He realizes that both his own name and music are destined to be consigned to the dustbin of history. Thus, in his foolish old age, Salieri spreads the rumor that he had poisoned Mozart, so that his name will live by its association to his. However, in a final twist, even this bit of immortality is denied him.
Much of the character detail in Amadeus is speculative and fictional. The idea of Salieri being involved in Mozart's death is based on a widely spread contemporaneous rumor as explored in a short play Mozart and Salieri by Alexander Pushkin.
By staging Amadeus as an intimate epic, director Joe Discher allows Robert Cuccioli to establish a strong rapport with the audience from the beginning as his Salieri takes us on a journey into his past. Cuccioli's cunning but pathetically deluded and twisted Salieri is not so much evil as he is a clueless victim of the failure of his simple faith. It is G-d whom he is seeking to punish when he plots against the favored Mozart. Cuccioli projects painful disappointment, confusion and awe (at Mozart's compositional talent), and a twisted sense of humor in a performance which appropriately makes Salieri sympathetic despite the destructiveness of his behavior. By emphasizing the pathetic ridiculousness of the 80-year-old Salieri, director Discher and Cuccioli bring out a strong element of black comedy in Shaffer's richly varied palette.
Jordan Coughtry more than holds his own by smoothly integrating the seeming discordance between Mozart's genius and his self-destructive, infantile behavior, and by largely mitigating audience annoyance at his behavior by making Mozart a truly amusing fellow. Coughtry's Mozart is a rarified genius who finds himself unable to suffer politely the pompousness and pretentiousness of his mental and musical inferiors. Yes, not being polite and restrained is self destructive and childish, but it is also often correlative with precocious genius. Coughtry's Mozart misbehaves so wittily and amusingly that, from the safety of a distance of more than 200 years, it gives the viewer great pleasure. The only time we are disposed to feel disapproval is when Mozart exposes the triteness of the march which Salieri has written to welcome him to the Viennese court, demonstrating his superior skill in the process. This subtle and effective piece of playwriting is fully illuminated in this production.
Tricia Paoluccio is sympathetic and believable as Constanze, Mozart's loyal wife. Paoluccio shows an emerging unconventional streak under the tutelage of Mozart which makes her a suitable match for him. Mark H. Dold as an Emperor who realizes his personal limitations leads a large and effective supporting cast.
There is an intimate yet opulent looking stylized set highlighted stage center by an ornate, rococo circular arch lovingly designed by Dick Block. Abetted by Block's setting, Maggie Dick's elaborate period costumes (you will be properly amused at Mozart's outrageously colorful superstar garb), and Matthew Adelson's complex, evocative lighting, director Joe Discher creates particularly ravishing, dimensional stage pictures.
Despite its overall excellence, Amadeus is somewhat overlong. There are ultimately too many scenes where all gather for a Mozart premiere which essentially only reiterate the point that of the greatness of Mozart and Salieri's lone appreciation of it. Shaffer revised Amadeus about a decade ago. Given the limited attention spans of today's audiences, perhaps a bit of trimming by Shaffer might be helpful.
The Shakespeare Theatre Amadeus is a true gem. Like its immortal title character, director Joe Discher, his artistic team, and company of 18 actors have created beautiful chamber music of a very high order.
Amadeus continues performances (Tuesday-Wednesday 7:30 p.m./ Thursday-Saturday 8 p.m./ Saturday-Sunday 2 p.m./ Sunday 7 p.m.) through June 22, 2008 at the Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey, on the campus of Drew University, 36 Madison Avenue, Madison, NJ 07940. Box Office: 973-408-5600, online: www.shakespeareNJ.org.
Amadeus by Peter Shaffer, directed by Joe Discher