No slam on the Alley Theatre, but there's a whole lot of mediocrity on view in Peter Shaffer's fanciful, dramatic look at genius vs. ho-hum. 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 his wunderkind rival Mozart (Stanley Bahorek). Mocked by God, Salieri must pit his meager talent against Mozart's immeasurable brilliance. To torture him further, Mozart is crude and crass, an intemperate man/child who makes farting noises and wantonly chases the girls. How could 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 where Salieri is stunned, not into silence, but into radiant rants of incisive analysis.
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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 justification for the wickedness he does. We hate the conniving, small-minded man, but, as with Iago, we root for him nonetheless.
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. 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. Except for a goth streak of magenta in her blowsy wig, though, she looks great 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 do in his Equus and Royal Hunt of the Sun), but luckily he gives us small-minded Salieri to rein in the incomprehensible genius that was Mozart. In Shaffer's epically enjoyable drama, insightfully conducted at the Alley, the mediocre brings us back to earth with a sobering thud.
The play runs through May 1 at the Alley Theatre, 615 Texas, 713-228-8421.