In Peter Shaffer's Amadeus, his fanciful, dramatic, Tony- and Oscar-winning look at genius vs. ho-hum, the art of mediocrity gets center stage. The genius is Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, credited as the first composer to proudly proclaim "I am a Musician" (in a 1777 letter to his beloved yet feared father). The mediocrity is Antonio Salieri, toadying court composer to Austrian emperor Joseph II.
In Shaffer's lovingly baroque play, Salieri (Jeffrey Bean) has the cosmic misfortune to live at the same time as wunderkind Mozart (Stanley Bahorek). Poor Salieri never stands a chance. Though highly respected at court, he reaps substantial rewards for his successful Italianate operas and religious works, but with Mozart around, Salieri has to pit his meager talents against the youngster's immeasurable brilliance. To torture him further, Mozart, through Shaffer's withering irony, is crude and crass, an intemperate man-child who makes farting noises and wantonly chases the girls. How can this buffoon write such sublime music? Why does God allow it? Salieri sets out to destroy him by ingratiating himself into Mozart's life and betraying him from within: with slights, missed promotions and gossipy court intrigue.
Shaffer uses just enough historical accuracy to keep the play wondrously slick and old-fashioned — Mozart would have said it flows like oil — and then adds impressive theatrical stunts like the music passages in which Salieri is stunned, not into silence, but into radiant rants of incisive analysis, as he describes the deep effect this "monster's" music has on him. He's cursed to be the only person around who truly understands Mozart's genius. "Too many notes for our ear," the clueless Emperor (Christopher Hutchison) states with royal disdain; no, for Salieri, there can be no others. "Displace one note," he says swooning with admiration, "and there would be diminishment. Displace one phrase and the structure would fall."
Alley Theatre, 615 Texas, 713-228-8421.
Through May 1. $21-$75.
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Director Jonathan Moscone, artistic director of California Shakespeare Theater, makes a welcome Alley debut with this lively, symphonic production. Bean is, as he has been all Alley season, indisputably impressive: a master of just the right gesture and the correct tone as he imbues Salieri with cool justification for the wickedness he commits. We hate the conniving, small-minded man, but, as with Iago, we root for him nonetheless. He's an icy one. When he hatches his devious plots, the lightning chills us.
Bahorek brings out the necessary conceit in "Wolfie," keeping him grounded with a little boy's fright and nervous tics. When he sits at the clavichord to demonstrate how Salieri's inconsequential march might be played, Bahorek tucks his leg under him with a child's innocent impropriety. It's just the sort of thing a young kid would do. As a stunted adult, he giggles when he should laugh, and throws tantrums instead of conversing. As the Venticelli ("the little winds"), the bitchy symbols of court gossip, Dylan Godwin and Adam Van Wagoner flit in and out with malicious ill will. The lumpy court is neatly limned by the talented triptych of Charles Krohn, James Black and James Belcher. Unfortunately, Shaffer gives short shrift to Mozart's wife Constanze, turning her into a harridan of epic proportions. It's a whiney, unsympathetic part, and Melissa Pritchett can't get a handle on her. But with a goth streak of magenta in her disheveled wig, she's a blowsy scold and appropriately oozes out of Katherine Roth's period bustiers.
The physical production by Daniel Ostling is classically atmospheric, with gigantic rococo-like panels framing the stage and a bird's egg-blue floor, like an enameled box, to reflect Christopher Akerlind's piercing light. Shaffer's disquisitions on God's blind justice can get a bit windy (as they also do in his Equus and Royal Hunt of the Sun), but luckily he gives us evil, small-minded Salieri to rein in the incomprehensible genius that was Mozart.
In Shaffer's epically enjoyable drama, insightfully conducted and orchestrated at the Alley, the mediocre brings us back to earth with a sobering thud.