Monday, February 28, 2011


In the 1980s Amadeus — both play and movie — caused a sensation. When British playwright Peter Shaffer portrayed Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart in his 20s as an “obscene child,” and the forgotten composer Antonio Salieri as his murderer — either literally (in the movie) or figuratively (in the play) — many splashy media debates ensued. (The cause of Mozart’s death at age 35 is uncertain. Shaffer’s play takes many liberties with known facts.)

But mostly Amadeus put a human face on this classical composer and both provided and inspired new exposure to his music. I don’t think it goes too far to say that Mozart’s standing with the general public today would not be as high without Amadeus in the ‘80s.

I saw the play in 1982 at Her Majesty’s Theatre in London, with original cast members Simon Callow and Felicity Kendal joined by Frank Finlay as Salieri. Such early productions and certainly the movie were memorable for their spectacle.

The Ferndale Repertory production, entering its final weekend, does not have that luxury — even with Daniel Nyiri’s handsome set and Lori Knowles’ sumptuous costumes. But guided by visiting director Karma Ibsen, it has the virtue of being clear. Craig Benson as Salieri and Kyle Ryan as Mozart speak and act so that every word can be understood. The rest of the cast does likewise (with the unfortunate exception of Kyra Gardner’s final speech as Constanze, Mozart’s wife. But Gardner is otherwise a convincing and audible Constanze.)

The play itself is very straightforward in form. It begins with a lot of exposition, and alternates explanation and illustration with little suspense while it hammers at its themes: the infantile genius Mozart who turns the mundane into legend, and the conniving and conventional Salieri who turns legends into the mundane, paralleled by their imagined relationships with God.

There are subtle layers, and the play does attempt the difficult combination of comedy and melodrama. But it is remarkably static, with little visible character development, at least when I saw it. (That was on Sunday — and with a 90-minute round trip and a nearly three-hour play, it pretty much was Sunday.) The production includes some recorded Mozart but especially in comparison to the movie, too few notes. There are also important plot elements that screenwriter Peter Shaffer turned into major movers of the movie’s considerable drama that playwright Peter Shaffer left ambiguous or oddly vague.

The play remains informative, with three wonderful speeches about Mozart’s music that still sing. This production provides an enjoyable community theater experience, with impressive presentations by Craig Benson, Kyle Ryan and the entire cast. But its particular impression on me was in confirming what I suspected in 1982, more obvious now that it is stripped of its initial shock value. At play’s end, Salieri describes himself as the patron saint of mediocrity. He therefore may also be the patron saint of this play.

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