Thursday, September 22, 2005

Amadeus (Great Lakes Theatre Festival)

AMADEUS’ is overly long, but intrigues at GLTF

Whispers fill the theater. We can distinguish nothing at first from the snakelike hissing except the word “Salieri” repeated here, there and then the barely distinguishable word "Assassin!" Thus starts Peter Shaffer’s ‘AMADEUS,’ now on stage in repertoire with ‘AS YOU LIKE IT,’ at Great Lakes Theatre Festival.

‘AMADEUS’ is loosely based on the lives of the composers Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and Antonio Salieri. The script was inspired by ‘MOZART AND SALIERI,’ a short play by Aleksandr Pushkin. It is a play of greed, lust, betrayal, intrigue and jealousy.

The title refers to an identification that Mozart often used as his pen name. The name, in German, means "God-lover" or "Loved by God." This identification is quite significant, as the title not only refers to Mozart, but Salieri's relationship with God, an important aspect of the plot.

Originating at the National Theatre of Great Britain, ‘AMADEUS’ won the Evening Standard Drama Award and, later, in the United States, the play won the coveted Tony Award. It went on to become a critically acclaimed major motion picture which won eight Oscars, including Best Picture.

The time is the 1800s, the place is Vienna, a city of musicians, where the aged Salieri narrates his plot to destroy Mozart, who he considers to be “God's preferred creature.”

The real Antonio Salieri is presently known as the man who lived in the shadow of Mozart; but in his time, he was the court Kappellmeister, and had among his students Schubert and Beethoven. And, from the standpoint of reality, he was probably far from the character in the play. There is no historical record of his plotting the death of Mozart, which is the strong underlying theme of the script.

As for Mozart, there is probably no man who has had his music played for such a long time. He was a boy genius who unfortunately was also a child-like, often childish man, who never really understood his role as an adult.

The Great Lakes Theatre Festival’s production is very good, though excessively long and doesn’t have the overall effect that it might. Neither of these is totally the Festivals’ fault. Shaffer has rewritten the play at least six times. In the latest version, which is the one GLTF chose to produce, the ending has been changed. We do not see Mozart’s supposed killer, a real or imagined phantom in a flowing black cloak, much like the traditional version of the death figure. We don’t see Mozart’s final moments before death envelops him. This weakens the final product.

In addition, on opening night the production lagged a little. One can only conjecture that this was not director Gordon Reinhart’s decision, but simply the fact that, due to financial restraints, the cast had not had preview performances to learn how to gauge the audience’s reactions and fall into a comfortable pattern. This problem should be alleviated as the show runs through its production dates.

GLTF audiences have gotten used to viewing Andrew May as the comic supreme. It is nice to see May given the opportunity to flap his dramatic wings. May comes through in grand style. He makes for a very believable and properly tortured Salieri.

Ben Nordstom (Mozart) is wonderful in the child-like sequences. His weakness is in making the transition into desperation as death nears. Part of this, again, may be the script. Because of the plot alterations Nordstrom doesn’t get the opportunity to show Mozart’s complete mental and physical collapse.

Scott Plate and Nicholas Koesters are wonderful as Salieri’s “Little Winds”--gossip mongers. They flit around the stage and into the audience whispering, making up tales, commenting on reality and illusion with great relish.

Dougfred Miller makes for an excellent Joseph II, Emperor of Austria and Kathryn Chesaro is equally as good as Constanze, Mozart’s wife.

CAPSULE JUDGEMENT: GLTF’s ‘AMADEUS’ is well worth seeing. Do not, however, expect the same power as the film version, as Shaffer’s new ending robs audiences of some of the depth of the emotional impact of Mozart’s final demise.