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A CurtainUp Berkshires Review
By Elyse Sommer
Randi Harrison, who played the mysteriously passionate and troubled Alan Strang at the center of Equus, is back, this time as Mozart during the last ten years of his all too brief life. For all their differences, these plays have much in common. As Salieri, disdains the bumpkin-like behavior of Mozart even as he recognizes and envies his genius, so the psychiatrist treating young Strang in Equus, finds that the boy's wild passion stir feelings of inadequacy and, yes, envy.
Both revivals are testaments to theater as a fluid rather than a frozen art and how directors can give revivals of a play exciting new visual and thematic interpretations without changing the basic text. And, while there are authors (or their executors) who insist on their plays being mounted exactly as written, many welcome fresh interpretations and often view their texts as works in progress, rewriting them from production to production. David Hare (whose one person play Via de la Rosa concludes the BTF season) made numerous changes in Stuff Happens between its production in London and the more recent one at New York's Public Theater. Tom Stoppard has announced that his mammoth Coast of Utopia will be different and less mammoth when it comes to Lincoln Center.
Peter Shaffer is another case in point. The Amadeus I saw in 1999 on Broadway and last Friday night in Stockbridge use a text that's been altered since the play's 1980 to 1983 run at the Broadhurst Theater. The story is the same but the focus is much more on the embittered kappelmeister's relationship to God.
While Shaffer used bits and pieces from Mozart's life, this is a work of imagination. Essentially it's Salieri's story, a flashback by the dying composer to his ten years of dealing with the realization that all his worldly success is meaningless when compared to those of Mozart, the socially inept boy-man. Salieri's envious rage takes the form of a decade of spiteful acts. Though Mozart is his victim, the embittered composer's real battle is with the God who has given him dubious gift of being the only one in his time to recognize Mozart's greatness. In fighting that battle Salieri destroys himself as well as Mozart (the man -- but not his music).
Jonathan Epstein, best known in this area for his work as one of Shakespeare & Company's leading character actors, struck me as an ideal choice to star as this production's Salieri. He indeed ably shifts from wry irony and Machiavellan duplicity to agonized fury and is a commanding presence from the moment he rises from his wheelchair to exchange a Turkish cap for a wig to help him shed the forty years needed to play the thirty-one-year-old establishment favorite. He walks in and out of the flashback scenes with an apt air of disdain. It would be unfair to carp about the usually high octane actor's somewhat subdued performance since he was clearly struggling with a heavy cold on opening night -- and doing so with bravura the-show-must-go-on spirit.
I would have liked to see director Eric Hill reign in Randy Harrison's excessive scatological playfulness with his Constanze (the appealing Tara Franklin), and focus a bit more on his unflagging belief in his musical gifts and the fascinating snippets about how a piece of music evolves. No complaints about Mr. Hill's stunning staging, as usual influenced by his Suzuki training. The original upstage light box design that gave the audience a peek of the stuffy, conformist 18th Century court life from Salieri's further downstage 19th century view is now a painted scrim in an ornate frame. This scrim as well as some sheer blue curtains open and close for some breathtaking tableaus of members of the court of Emperor Joseph II (Walter Hudson).
The Emperor's short attention span (even Mozart's most gorgeous music can't overcome his constant unwillingness to listen to something that he declares has &quo;too many notes") and his assorted courtiers' preference for what's safe and familiar (meaning Salieri's music) bring newly relevant reminders of our current President as well as the bottom-line producers who control today's theater.
The various courtiers include Stephen Temperley, who is also the playwright (his delightful Souvenir made a BTF stop on its way to Broadway last summer and a new play, The Pilgrim Papers will be at BTF's Unicorn next month) and Bob Jaffee, another double hat wearer (he adapted and starred in a Beckett anthology and then you go on a few BTF seasons ago). Ron Bagden, an actor I've seen and admired elsewhere, seems under used as the only member of the court who sees Mozart as a breath of fresh air but does little to help him.
Unfortunately, there are times when everyone seems to spend too much time standing around (okay, I know that's what people in this kind of setup do, but in this case it tends to make an already overly long play seem even longer). However, whenever things tend to move at a too leisurely pace, along comes the gossipy two-man chorus known as Venticilli 1 (Tom Story ) and Venticilli 2 (James Barry) with another "I can't believe it" sequence to enliven things -- not to mention, to remind you that it's gossip not hard historical evidence that drives Shaffer's assumptions about what happened between these composers.
A not to be overlooked star contributor to this production is Matthew E. Adelson. His subtle lighting at one point creates an unforgettable dual vision of the two composers, with Mozart's shadow appearing to eradicate Salieri's.
If Amadeus leaves you yearning for a full evening of Mozart, you don't have far to go or long to wait. On July 5th, the Berkshire Opera Company (413-442-9953) is presenting a one night Mozart Birthday celebration at the Mahawe Performing Arts center, featuring local diva Maureen O'Flynn and others.
To read my review of the 1999 Broadway production of Amadeus go here . Finally, a trivia question: Who played Salieri's prize pupil Katherina Cavalieri in the movie version? Answer: Christine Ebersole, the same Christine whose WOW performance in Grey Gardens, helped to propel this musical adaptation of the documentary about two impoverished, quirky Jackie Kennedy cousins to a Broadway booking for next fall.