Amadeus is a Wonderfully Executed Balance between Romp and Drama (5 stars)

by Claudia A. Fox Tree

Imagine, if you will, Vienna in the 18th century. Marie Antoinette’s brother’s Royal Court is filled with white tights, fancy shoes sporting one-inch heels, longhaired wigs with bows, and that’s just the men. Inspired from a short 1830 play by Alexander Pushkin called Mozart and Salieri, Amadeus, by British playwright Peter Shaffer, was first performed in 1979. The film version by the same name, based on Shaffer’s play, was nominated for 53 awards and received 40, 8 being Academy Awards (including Best Picture). The play won seven Tony Awards (including Best Play). If these accolades don’t whet your appetite to see New Rep’s current production of Amadeus, perhaps seeing scenes emoting the power of music to inspire one’s soul and set to the operas of The Abduction from the Seraglio, The Marriage of Figaro, Don Giovanni, and The Magic Flute might change your mind.

This wonderfully executed balance between romp and drama tells a fictionalized account of the composer, Antonio Salieri’s relationship with God, for Whom he has taken a vow of piety and fidelity in exchange for the gift of musical talent. Instead, he must accept his own mediocrity, made apparent once he hears the extraordinary talent of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. Salieri, played by Benjamin Evett, is jealous of the music created/emitted, seemingly effortlessly, by Mozart, played by Tim Spears, because it is packaged inside the body an “unprincipled, spoiled, conceited brat.” Evett evokes/embodies the opulent formality of Emperor Joseph II’s Royal Court, while Spears captures the world of a petulant, cuss-word-wielding, streetwise, charming imp. The play pushes the viewers to straddle other divisions, such as: mediocrity vs. brilliance, wealth vs. poverty, women as toys vs. women as equals capable to making negotiations, Italian vs. German operas, and the different levels of music appreciation.

Benjamin Evett, founding Artistic Director of the Actors’ Shakespeare Project, holds his own with grace and attitude as both the narrator and a character, speaking long soliloquies of complicated lines, in both English and Italian, addressed often to the audience, sometimes to God. He reminded me of Teagle F. Bougere’s performance as the narrator in Invisible Man, only Amadeus is much more fun! Tim Spears, a Boston University School of Theatre graduate, does the city proud with his high-pitched laugh/giggle, and crawling-on-the-floor version of the childlike composer, who can pull it together in an instant and compose a beautiful work of musical art, capturing the dual aspects of Amadeus’s personality magnificently. In his own words, Amadeus says, “I am a vulgar man! But I assure you, my music is not.”

The story is told from the aging Salieri’s perspective, thirty-two years after Mozart’s death, beginning with his announcement that he will be dead in the morning, and ending with a botched suicide attempt. Salieri has been so desperate for eternal appreciation that he masquerades as Mozart’s friend, while sabotaging his “friend’s” access to the Royal Court and ability to support his growing family. Salieri’s “venticelli,” or “little winds” report the gossip of what is going on with Mozart. These jester-type characters played by Michael Kaye and Paula Langton offer comic relief in this tragedy. Salieri tries to steal Mozart’s Requiem Mass in D minor and pass it off as his own, but Mozart’s wife, Constanze, played by the charming McCaela Donovan, locks up the unfinished piece before Salieri can get his hands on it. In a final attempt to gain notoriety, the aged Salieri tries to claim responsibility for Mozart’s death by saying that it was he who poisoned Mozart He has struggled his entire life to “do the right thing” for the Royal Court, the musical opera, and for God, and he just can’t seem to get it right. Through a series of flashbacks, with all costume changes on stage, he recounts the moments of realizing the passionate music he loves was given by God to the scoundrel, Mozart, therefore, making it necessary to plan his demise – to challenge God, and to destroy his rival.

In real life, there is evidence that these two composers were peers and friends, as well as rivals. Salieri even tutored Mozart’s son in music. However, the tension created in Peter Shaffer’s plot rings true for a time when Italian operas were seen as the best. The rich language of this play puts an abstract classical symphony’s sound into words:

The beginning simple, almost comic. Just a pulse – bassoons and basset horns – like a rusty squeezebox. Then suddenly – high above it – an oboe, a single note, hanging there unwavering, till a clarinet took over and sweetened it into a phrase of such delight! This was no composition by a performing monkey! This was a music I’d never heard. Filled with such longing, such unfulfillable longing, it had me trembling. It seemed to me that I was hearing the very voice of God.

The sparse set and props, designed by Cristina Todesco and Alexander Grover, often consisted of one piano and a red upholstered high-back chair against a giant Spirograph design which created a crisscrossed pattern of black on white, like a jacquard jester’s leotard. The lighting, designed by Mary Ellen Stebbins, helped set the mood as a high, circular opening doubled as an entrance for characters to slide down from or as a rosette window, gold for court and multicolored, like stained glass, for God scenes.

For the next three weeks at the New Repertory Theatre in Watertown, Amadeus, directed by Jim Petosa, will demonstrate the belief Shaffer, and perhaps many music aficionados, have that the composer, Mozart, was “God’s Beloved” (the literal meaning of “Amadeus”). He was given a gift that was not appreciated in his own lifetime, but will be beloved for eternity, while other composers are left with names we cannot spell or hardly remember.

The audience was comprised of very few college students, and many folks were thirty-something and up. This is not a show for youngsters, due to vulgar language and sexual innuendo, but also because it is three hours long, with one intermission, and many long soliloquies, in the vein of Shakespeare.

The thirtieth season of the New Rep Theater is supported, like many theaters, by its seasonal subscription holders and by its sponsorships from restaurants to banks. It represents the best that a community can offer in terms of dynamic shows, talented performers, creative directors, and interesting perspectives on popular themes, packaged with support from the local businesses.

Amadeus is playing in the Charles Mosesian Theater April 28 – May 19, 2013. The New Repertory Theatre is the resident professional theatre company at the Arsenal Center for the Arts located at 321 Arsenal Street, Watertown, MA 02472. It is easily accessible from I-95/128, Route 9, 16, and 20, the Mass Pike and the T. For more, see