By Michele Markarian
Amadeus – Written by Peter Shaffer. Directed by Allison Olivia Choat. Presented by Moonbox Productions, Plaza Theatre, Boston Center for the Arts, at 539 Tremont Street, Boston through December17.
Amadeus begins with the Italian composer Salieri (Matthew Zahnzinger) in his final years; indeed, he tells us we are witnessing the last night of his life, and for this reason, he has a story he needs to get off his chest. He claims that he was responsible for the early death of Mozart (Cody Sloan), whose prolific talent he envies. It’s an unusual envy – he sees Mozart as less of a human, professional rival and more as the vehicle for God’s musical genius.
Salieri’s relationship with God is pretty straightforward. As a youngster, he dismisses the God of his parents as someone who will “keep them forever preserved in mediocrity” (mediocrity is a theme playwright Shaffer keeps returning to). Salieri falls in love with music at an early age, and makes a bargain with God – if God allows him talent and fame, then he, Salieri, will live a virtuous, pious life, writing music to glorify Him. It’s an immature bargain, one where Salieri assumes that because he is willing, so is God. The arrival at Court of a hotshot party boy composer named Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart changes Salieri’s perception of God forever, as he realizes that the musical genius he so priggishly thinks God is working through him is nothing compared to the genius of Mozart. After obtaining a copy of Mozart’s Vesperae Solennes de Confessore, Salieri, incensed, declares God as his enemy, with Mozart as “the battleground”.
It’s a nasty piece of work, clocking in at over three hours long, with intermission. Salieri’s battle with the Lord is so filled with hubris that it’s hard to feel any kind of empathy towards him. Zahnzinger does an excellent job in the role, transforming himself from old to young and back again with seeming ease. He has the quality of alert, active listening; you can see the wheels turning even when he is observing. But it’s a bitchy part, and Sloan, as Mozart, is so likeable, so cute, so refreshingly in the moment that even when he is being alarmingly irrepressible you can’t help but root for him. His boyish attachment to his Papa, his wife Costanze (Caroline Keeler, who provides a nice balance to Mozart’s impulsiveness) and ultimately, Salieri, is guileless and touching.
Moonbox Productions, one of the more interesting and varied theater companies in Boston, does a meticulous job with the production. Cameron McEachern’s set design is striking and effective; the stage is framed by a gilded arch, with a faux marble floor, designed to suggest the Court. Simple set pieces are stacked and quietly carried out as needed – a banquet table, a desk, chairs for a theater. Dan Rodriguez’s musical direction is lovely; the production even has its own original recordings by the exquisite Grand Harmonie Orchestra. And David Lacey’s gorgeous costumes are in perfect keeping with the period.
Salieri’s music went out of fashion during his lifetime. While there is absolutely no historical basis for their rivalry, Shaffer has granted Salieri an immortality he so desperately sought from God for his music. If only he could have read director Allison Olivia Choat’s notes at the front of the program. I won’t tell you what Choat said – you have to go and read it yourself – but she’s stumbled on a truth that moved me much more than Salieri’s vengeance. For more information, visit: http://www.moonboxproductions.org/amadeus/