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By John Thomason
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There are several good reasons why South Florida playgoers may want to trek out to Plantation to take in Amadeus, now playing at the Mosaic Theatre. First and foremost is Peter Shaffer's grand potboiler of a script about the life and death of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. Because of its formidable casting and production demands, it is rarely produced nowadays. Second but equal in appeal is John Felix's glorious star turn as Antonio Salieri, the play's villainous central character, a hard-working but mediocre composer who seethes in jealousy and despair. The appearance of veteran Felix at the tiny, 4-year-old Mosaic is something of an anomaly; he usually pops up at the larger, better-funded theater companies in the region. But Salieri was apparently just too juicy a role to pass up. While Felix (and audiences) must endure any number of annoying production weaknesses, it's worth the trip to behold him in full cry; Salieri is a role he was born to play.
Shaffer's 1979 play introduces the aged Salieri on what the composer calls the last night of his life, as he tells a tale of how he met Mozart and how (perhaps) he engineered the youthful genius' untimely death at 35. The story shifts back to 1781, when Mozart, a former child prodigy, first arrives in Vienna. Salieri is a famed composer at the court of the Austrian emperor in Vienna. But he is stunned by Mozart's music, so angelic, so far above his own that he cannot possibly compete. Yet Mozart is a childish, foul-mouthed dolt who seems to turn out masterpieces without thought or effort. The appalled Salieri turns jealous, then deeply angry at God for playing such a trick. Why should heavenly music come from such a toad? Bitterly, Salieri vows revenge.
Shaffer takes the biographies of both composers, dismantles them, and uses the facts to create a fictional dramatic structure. The result, which weaves strands of dramatic intrigue, physical comedy, and historical detail, is a clever, satisfying melodrama, but a good dose of praise should justly go to the great Russian writer Aleksandr Pushkin, whose story Mozart and Salieri is Shaffer's direct source. (Rimsky-Korsakov wrote an opera based on the Pushkin tale.) Neither genius is credited by Shaffer, but never mind: The workmanlike Shaffer has more than a bit of Salieri in him. What Shaffer brings to this tale of jealousy and genius is a careful examination of mediocrity and the torment that an appreciation of genius can bring: Salieri knows he can't touch Mozart's powers but is doomed to truly appreciate them. While the play takes on profound and poetic themes, it does so without much profundity or poetry; it relies instead on the pathos of Mozart's sad life and the celestial glory of his music.
The Mosaic's Richard Jay Simon deserves considerable praise for his risk-taking choice to produce such a monster show -- the production features 15 performers in full 18th-century regalia jammed onto the Mosaic's tiny stage. The production demands are daunting, and Simon meets many of them. Ian Almeida's whimsical set design is a purple stage curtain within a series of concentric proscenium arches; Travis Neff adds subtle, golden-hued lighting. The array of brocaded period costumes adds considerable substance to the production, though the wigs tend to throw shadows on the actors' faces. Simon stages ably, juggling his large cast through scores of complex entrances and exits, but the play's extended length -- nearly three hours with intermission -- has a price, especially in the lumbering second act. Most damaging is a stunningly bad sound design, which together with a mediocre sound system and poorly executed cues puts a damper on the play's pace and effect. For a play about music, sound design should have been a top production priority.
The role of Salieri was memorably created by Paul Scofield in London and then Ian McKellan in New York City. But Felix, with a dry wit and subtle timing, manages to put his own stamp on the dessert-addicted conniver, and his scenes sparkle. The supporting company, while not completely first-rate, is studded with solid performances. As the wild child Mozart, Christian Rockwell tends toward conventional acting choices; his high-pitched laugh and white fright wig echo Tom Hulce from the movie version. Likewise, Ursula Freundlich's interpretation of Constanze, Mozart's wife, is competent but not inventive. Both, however, find their moments. When Salieri plays a routine piano piece in honor of Mozart's arrival at court, Rockwell listens intently, working out the composition in his head. Here, Rockwell gets Mozart exactly right -- on his own lonely planet, a loopy genius functioning on a level inconceivable to the rest of us. Freundlich finds her stride in a scene in which Salieri proposes that she provide sex in exchange for Salieri's help in finding Mozart a job; there's an acute inner struggle to maintain her dignity while calculating the cost of the bargain.