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Murdered by his century: World’s Stage’s colorful “Amadeus”

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"Amadeus" by The World's Stage Theatre

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Peter Shaffer’s plays are so discursive and idea-crammed, you’d sometimes think he’d rather have been a professor. His most famous plays (Amadeus and Equus), plus a couple of lesser-known ones (The Royal Hunt of the Sun and Yonadab), revolve around a talkative, rather cynical man confronting mysteries that defy reason: ecstasy, magic, and the divine. Now in production by The World’s Stage Theatre is Amadeus, the highly-fictionalized account of the wrought relationship between Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and his contemporary composer Antonio Salieri, which made it’s way into mainstream culture via the wonderful film by Miloš Forman (and was even immortalized in a Simpsons episode). The plot works from the irony that the man who (SPOILERS) murdered Mozart was the very man who most recognized his genius. Shaffer depicts this, not as mere artistic rivalry, but as the breaking of a grandiose bargain made by Salieri in his youth with God, whom he was brought up to see as a kind of capo de tutti capi; a severe, top-down manager who would grant you musical talent in return for a life of chastity and virtuous deeds.

Well. Virtue might get you someplace in society, and Salieri indeed became a very successful professional composer. But creativity works on a totally different schedule. When Salieri discovers that Mozart, the true musical genius of his time, is a distinctly un-virginal, potty-mouthed giggling brat, he loses it, curses God, and sets in motion the conspiratorial wheels that will eventually crush his rival, whom he calls “the flute” through whom God plays the divine music. The story is funny, thought-provoking—and heartbreaking, to realize that Mozart’s biggest mistake was being born three hundred years too soon: his giddy joi de vivre and libertine sensuality, which found uneasy comfort in the Emperor’s court, could have flourished in, say, today’s club scene along with the likes of Skrillex and Deadmouse—and he wouldn’t have had to die of consumption, either. This is the kind of theme that The World’s Stage Theatre Company often relishes, and they rise to the occasion with this intimate production at the Villa Terrace.

The elegant mansion serves well as the courts and salons of Salzburg, and the players seem to be having a great time swanning about in improbably-curled periwigs and velvet and brocade surcoats in colors nature never made. Whether intentionally or not, the acting tends towards striking attitudes rather than expressing moment-to-moment human desires—normally not a good thing—but a certain stageyness coincides with Shaffer's social/philosophical calculus. Jared McDaris makes a most convincing Mozart. With large, glinting eyes and wide mouth that sort of resemble the Tom Hulce of the film, he plays “genius” well, with the heightened expressivity of an agile small mammal running rings around the dinosaurs surrounding him. As Wolfgang’s child-bride, who loves his comical dirty talk, and is pragmatic enough to offer herself to Salieri in exchange for a lucrative job for her husband, Gretchen Mahkorn is sympathetic and believable. And as the diabolical Salieri, veteran actor Mack Heath pulls off the toughest job in the play: seeming sympathetic as well as villainous while holding our attention through monolog after hellaciously-long monolog. This he accomplishes most curiously, taking advantage of the small space by speaking often in almost a whisper; eyes shut, as if contemplating the grandeur of his own monumental ego, he draws us into his world.

Director Catie O’Donnell respects the script and keeps things moving at an engaging clip, if not quite taking full. advantage of the unique opportunities of the space. The ingenious lighting design creates nice color contrasts between the playing area inside and the courtyard outside--with its statue of Hermes’ marble butt clearly visible through the upstage window, like God mooning us throughout the evening. The sound design, unfortunately, seems rather tossed together, and it’s jarring that, in a play with music so much at its very heart, we should go to and from our seats in awkward silence. Aside from this, the production successfully realizes the play’s complex lines of feeling and thought. For that, it deserves to be seen by a broad audience.

A very old idea has recently surfaced: what if the creative force of the universe, that generates complexity from entropy—everything from the emergence of life to the creation of human culture—is a cosmic inclination for play? Suppose the world came into being by some subatomic propensity for goofing around that runs all the way from molecules to the human mind? If so, Mozart’s playful genius touched the divine in ways that Salieri’s hierarchical deity could never come near. What does this say about our time, when practical-minded bourgeois commonly discount the vital importance of arts and humanities, threatening to turn all education into a job mill? How many modern Mozarts toil in dead-end jobs today? The more things change, as they say.

Amadeus
by Peter Shaffer
World’s Stage Theatre Company
Directed by Catie O'Donnell

March 21st and 22nd, 7:30pm
Sunday, March 23rd, 6:00 pm

The Villa Terrace Decorative Arts Museum
2220 N. Terrace Avenue
Tickets available at http://amadeus.bpt.me/
or available at door prior to performances.

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