Regional Reviews: Boston
The city is Vienna, the year 1781, and Antonio Salieri, highly esteemed court composer to Emperor Joseph II, has just met his rival. Wolfgang Amadeus Mozartchild prodigy, prolific composer, and shameless vulgarian. To announce Mozart's arrival at court, Salieri has composed a trifling march in his honor, which Mozart proceeds to dissect and re-compose on the spot with oblivious delight. Salieri's first thoughts of treachery are born. From that first one-on-one encounter, Peter Shaffer's musical potboiler Amadeus begins its slow crescendo, charting Salieri's attempts to put an end to the unworthy Mozart whatever the cost.
This is dramatic license, of course. There's no definitive evidence that the real Salieri despised Mozart, let alone sought to end the man's life. His own operas were plentiful and highly popular in their day. But Shaffer couldn't resist shaping a legendary rivalry from the two composers' output. By doing so, propelled by the popular success of the Oscar-winning 1984 film, Shaffer has essentially resurrected Salieri from relative obscurity. Whether it's fair or not, Salieri's name is now infamous for a crime he probably never committed, characterized in this play as a lesser talent consumed with vengeance against the potty-mouthed but divinely gifted Mozart.
Fortunately, in this staging for Moonbox Productions, the role of Salieri does not suffer from a shortage of talent. Matthew Zahnzinger commands the stage as the undistinguished composer. From his first entrance, Zahnzinger delights as the aged, wheelchair-bound Salieri, genially grinning as he breaks the fourth wall to confess he was Mozart's assassin. Then, as the younger Salieri, Zahnzinger is every bit the uptight sophisticate, with a biting wit and stoic countenance masking his inner vehemence. It's a daunting role; Salieri acts in almost every scene, delivering a fiery monologue one minute, watching Mozart in silent horror from the sidelines the next. Zahnzinger is especially effective at the climax of act one, where he shifts his hatred from the mere mortal Mozart to renounce God himself: "So be it! From this time we are enemies, You and I!"
His performance enlivens a production that's otherwise more Salieri than Mozart in spirit. Under director Allison Olivia Choat, the show's pace is stately; act two feels its length as the play passes the three-hour mark. Too many words, perhaps. Except for Zahnzinger, most of the actors speak Shaffer's robust language in a lower, more subdued key. Several predictable laughs (like the Emperor's repeated bon mot "Well, there it is") earned chuckles at my performance. This approach matches the intimate performing space, designed by Cameron McEachern: a narrow thrust floor surrounded by the audience on three sides. It's a chamber production in scope, and the impassioned, operatic sweep of the writing feels diminished.
Cody Sloan takes on the lowbrow Mozart with gusto, though he's more tentative than boisterous in his early scenes. His ostentatious bows, dirty jokes with Constanze (Caroline Keeler), and that irrepressible giggle don't seem to come entirely naturally to him. Sloan connects more with the ailing, frenzied Mozart, as his character is reduced to poverty and drunkenness, feverishly working until his death to compose his Requiem. Keeler's Constanze, for her part, seems similarly embarrassed by Mozart's potty mouth. She's the realist in their relationship, playing up Constanze's increasing bitterness as their fortunes diminish. She is best in her private negotiations with Salieri, cruelly aware of what she has to bargain with, as she offers herself to the composer on her husband's behalf.
Though the set is nicely minimal, the wigs and costumes (by Peter Mill and David Lucey, respectively) are plentiful and period perfect. Mozart's flighty pink wig is a sight to see. We also hear lovely excerpts of Mozart's masterworks recorded specifically for this production, music directed by Dan Rodriguez, in collaboration with the period instrument ensemble Grand Harmonie and the Harvard University Choir. There are even brief snippets of Salieri's work, brought to life for a few moments before the sounds of Mozart resume. It's inevitable, Shaffer's starring character must think; what else would the self-proclaimed mediocre composer expect? But in a production most distinguished by Zahnzinger's excellent work, he at last gains the upper hand. This Amadeus is Salieri's opus.
Amadeus is presented by Moonbox Productions through December 17, 2016, at the BCA Plaza Theatre, 539 Tremont St., Boston, MA. Tickets are $25-50 and can be purchased at moonboxproductions.org or by phone at 617-933-8600.