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Regional Reviews: San Francisco/North Bay

Cinnabar Theater
Review by Jeanie K. Smith | Season Schedule

Also see Patrick's reviews of Saturday Night and The Effect

Aaron Wilton, David Foushee, Richard Pallaziol,
and Tim Setzer

Photo by Victoria Von Thal
In Latin, "amadeus" means "God's love" or "loved by God," an apt name for an individual whose protean gift of music could well be construed as a divine blessing, such as one Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. There is no Latin coinage for the person whose gift is admirable, but, well, not as brilliant. Could this describe Antonio Salieri, the 18th century composer who was much celebrated in his day but whose music faded into obscurity shortly after his death? Peter Shaffer, the British playwright of Equus fame, doesn't really care if you've ever heard of Salieri, and isn't really interested in promoting his music. He wants you to muse on something deeper, something more universal in the human condition. Cinnabar Theater's production of this Tony-winning play brings together some excellent acting to do Shaffer's play justice.

We first meet Salieri (Richard Pallaziol) in 1825 as an ailing old man, ready to end his earthly existence. After much musing on mortality, he promises to deliver his entire story, sharing with us the "Ghosts of the Future," what has brought him to this point. Thus we move into flashback, some 30 years earlier.

In the late 18th century, Salieri is already Vienna's Court Composer, celebrated for his operas, commissioned by royalty in Paris and elsewhere, when Mozart (Aaron Wilton) arrives to take up residence near the palace. Mozart's reputation as a remarkable young composer precedes him, and Salieri is instantly concerned for his job—what if Mozart overshadows him? Is his career in jeopardy? Salieri must step up his strategies to win favor with the Emperor and court noblemen, and that might mean doing business in a shady way.

It must be noted that Shaffer's version of history is highly fictionalized, taking artistic license with documented accounts of the two composers' lives and their relationship. To what end? What thematic message is delivered within this intriguing, if historically imagined, story? Shaffer based his work expansively on an 1830 play by Alexander Pushkin, and both playwrights freely expressed their desires to fashion dramatic studies of envy. Shaffer's is of course more modern, a cautionary tale for our time.

Shaffer's Salieri is obsessed with fame, enough to commit his eternal soul to the utmost good for whatever God will grant him. Determined and greedily ambitious, he cannot bear to see the great gift of music that has apparently been God-given to Mozart, and begins to take every opportunity to undermine the younger composer's success. He denounces God and his life of devotion in favor of sinister schemes.

Salieri even pretends friendship, but plots to ruin Mozart behind his back. Oddly, the more destruction he creates, the more his own career rises and flourishes. Yet Salieri can still recognize the beauty of Mozart's music, the effect of the young man's astonishing music, in a way that the plodding court nobles cannot. He can ruin Mozart's career, but he can't excise the genius from the man.

Salieri's final monologue implicates us all in his ignoble pursuit of fame, his arching sin of envy. Who indeed has never felt the sting of being bested, of being cast into shadow by one whose achievements dwarf our own? His pain is all too familiar, even if his actions are disturbing.

The script suffers some lengthy passages in act two, and becomes rather shrill in the climax. Were Shaffer still alive (he died in 2016) and so inclined, he might be persuaded to amend the play script once more, trimming away some of the wordiness of act two, just as he did for the Oscar-winning film.

Pallaziol provides a thoroughly engrossing portrayal of Salieri, alternately amusing, ingratiating, clever and horrifying, justifying his every move with a wistful smile. He's well-matched by Wilton as Mozart, whose giggling, foul-mouthed man-child is strangely endearing and charming. Rose Roberts as Constanze, Mozart's clever wife, nicely transitions from simpleton to savvy, from supposed bimbo to pragmatic operator. Sophia Ferar, as singer Caterina, doesn't get to say much, but speaks volumes with attitude.

Jared Emerson-Johnson's sound design does a great job of capturing the music of the two composers, complementing the action beautifully. Set design by Peter Parish fails to convey the sumptuousness of a Vienna court, and combines too many disparate scenic elements. Costumes by Skipper Skeoch, other than Mozart's lavish jackets, are oddly understated, especially for the nobility. They don't match the well-wrought wigs designed by Jolie O'Dell. Lighting design, also by Parish, feels out of sync with the action, frequently leaving performers in darkness. None of these production weaknesses undermine the strength of the performances, however—the acting of the principals elevates the show.

Go for the first-rate acting and enjoy your debate about ambition and envy after the show.

Amadeus, through April 15, 2018, at Cinnabar Theater, 3333 Petaluma Blvd., Petaluma CA. Tickets $15.00-$35.00 can be purchased online at or by phone at 707-763-8920

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