Few local productions have been more deserving of a bigger budget than Amadeus. With a powerful performance by Damon Abdallah as Antonio Salieri (the accomplished composer who is nonetheless outshone by Mozart’s brilliance) and several features that distinguish it from what you think you know (from the 1984 movie) about the script, director Jhon Goodwin’s production accomplishes much with minimal resources.
Barren set. The Vienna court nobles, not in powdered wigs and silks, but running around in shirts and ties like so many middle managers or insurance salesmen. Mozart’s wife, Salieri’s prize pupil, and the two Venticelli (here played by two women) displaying cleavage in corsets atop long skirts — plenty of sex appeal, but a contemporary look instead of 18th-century elegance.
The payoff in making such a virtue of (financially constrained) necessity was in Eric Paine’s hipster Mozart, a Hollywood producer type in floppy sleeves and jeans, way cooler and more rebellious than his aristocratic Viennese patrons. Here, the contemporary touch worked: At a glance, you could see who’s uptight and who isn’t.
Playwright Peter Shaffer has revised his script repeatedly, pointedly making room in the conclusion for greater historical accuracy (or at least less self-assurance about the circumstances of the Requiem and Mozart’s death at age 35). That, the de-emphasis of spectacle and underscoring of the language here, Paine’s unself-consciousness about the fact of Mozart’s genius, and the energy provided by the Venticelli are all reasons to take in this show (and not assume that you’re good because once, long ago, you saw the movie).
As Salieri’s gossip-mongerers and hangers-on, Marnie Rorholm and Ariel Cansino emphasize seductiveness over energy. The suggestion that poor repressed, conservative, married Salieri has beautiful admirers sets up his manipulative seduction of Mozart’s wife Constanze (Janelle Frisque, sultry) nicely, but the energy of rapid-fire news-gathering seemed to be missing. The Venticelli, however, allow Shaffer to move the plot along and provide Salieri some allies, so he’s not quite so alone.
Abdallah — at first hunched over as an elderly man in a wheelchair, later the hands-crossed-in-submission schemer at court — delivers one of the best local performances in memory. He achieves great intensity in the Act One-closing sequence, Salieri’s impassioned rejection of any God who would choose vulgar Wolfy instead of dignified Antonio to be the vessel of divine musical brilliance. (“What use is man, if not to teach God a lesson?” – Yikes, I could feel the blasphemy and feared the oncoming thunderbolt.)
Shaffer’s much-reworked plot and some laggard pacing, however, worked against the effect: at two and a half hours, some of Shaffer’s urgings about Salieri as mediocre talent, the resentment of Mozart’s childish behavior, his ravings against God — all seemed over-extended. Goodwin might’ve trimmed here and there — and in the blocking, he sometimes allowed five-person-wide static groupings of actors to impede the onstage progress.
Paine, a talented comedic actor, was engaging in the early going, with his high-pitched giggles and calm self-persuasion that yes, I am just about the greatest composer who has ever lived. (You have to admire a guy who commuted weekly, 800 miles roundtrip from Marysville, for the sake of a volunteer acting gig; and he was memorable in Lend Me a Tenor at the Civic in 2002). But the final, tragic sequence seemed beyond Paine’s grasp: the loss of his art and his Constanze still had a kind of bemusement about it, when the script calls for tragedy and despair.
Random notes: Abdallah’s dismissive gesture on “the voice of God in an obscene child” was powerful. Paine looked authentic in plinking away at the “harpsichord.” Paine’s mockery of Italian composing as unimaginative (“tonic and dominant, on and on”) was self-assured. Words like “breeches,” Idomeneo and “seraglio” were mispronounced. Frisque was reluctantly seductive and Abdallah was nervous and awkward — both, just as the script calls for — in their seduction scene. Paine needs more weight in his remorse over the (retold) death of Mozart’s father, Leopold — and more horror and guilt near the play’s end.
Despite flaws, however, Goodwin has presented a meaningful drama that reconceptualizes some of what it means to go on in life, as we all do, knowing that we aren’t the best at what we do. Not even near it. And yet on we trudge.
Salieri, a mediocrity, speaks for and to us. And some of those moments under Bryan Durbin’s light design — Abdallah’s upturned, anguished face; Paine’s quizzical chortling — are moments that will live in your memory. If you get out to CdA this weekend.
Amadeus runs at Lake City Playhouse through Sunday (April 1-3 at 7:30 pm)
Coming up at Lake City Playhouse: Jekyll & Hyde (the musical), May 1-2, 6-9, 13-16, 20-23