Everyman's elegant 'Amadeus' jTC

November 20, 1996|By J. Wynn Rousuck | J. Wynn Rousuck,SUN THEATER CRITIC

Everyman Theatre has mounted the most elaborate, elegant production in its short history -- in support of a play about mediocrity.

The play is Peter Shaffer's "Amadeus," and the staging is perfectly appropriate since Shaffer tells his story through contrasts.

The central contrast concerns Antonio Salieri. At one time the most celebrated composer in Europe, Salieri has the inescapable truth of his own mediocrity forced upon him when confronted by the bona fide genius of that obnoxious prodigy, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart.

As to the matter of elegance, well, what better way to portray Mozart's eventual hunger and penury than by contrasting them with Salieri's gluttony and wealth?

Despite its title, "Amadeus" is primarily about Salieri. The role is one of the larger and more taxing in modern dramatic literature, and director Vincent M. Lancisi has found an actor worthy of its demands.

Conrad Feininger smoothly negotiates Salieri's four-decade age range and, with even more finesse, shows how jealousy turns a devout man of God into a devout sinner.

The play begins with Salieri in a wheelchair with his back to us. When he turns around, wearing a stocking cap pulled down almost to his bushy eyebrows and a shawl around his shoulders, he looks meaner than Scrooge. He dubs the story he is about to tell: "The Death of Mozart, or Did I Do It?" And, though the evening takes the form of a mystery (which he is more than happy to unravel), the theme of the frustration of the mediocre man is as compelling as any whodunit.

The root of Salieri's frustration isn't merely that he recognizes Mozart to be the superior composer. He is doubly plagued by being the only contemporary who recognizes this. And he is triply plagued since, contrary to his belief that music is a gift from God, in choosing Mozart, God has chosen a vessel Salieri can only describe as "an obscene child."

It is, indeed, an accurate description of the character Shaffer has created. First seen at an aristocratic soiree, Kyle Prue's Mozart makes his entrance crawling on all fours and emitting animal noises and scatological comments as he pursues his future wife. Like Tom Hulce in the Academy Award-winning movie version, Prue gives his character an identifying laugh -- a high-pitched bray, quite the opposite of the serious, deep tones Feininger gives Salieri.

But despite only having to age a decade, Prue initially appears too old for 25-year-old Mozart. And, despite the pain of Mozart's starvation and deteriorating health, Prue's physical suffering never approaches Salieri's psychological distress.

As Mozart's wife, Constanze, Tina Frantz is adorable, but also conveys the sudden maturity that is thrust on her character as the pressures of loving a childish husband erode their family life. Joseph Cronin and Kahlil Joseph Lowry are also effective as the effete Viennese gossips who keep Salieri abreast of the latest scandals.

Overall, Lancisi has assembled a cast whose varied physiognomies enhance the eye-catching period look of the show, produced in cooperation with the Rep Stage of Columbia. Dan Conway's set design features a group of pillars that rotate to reveal mullioned mirrors or baroque nudes, and the painting of the deity that Salieri addresses when he makes his pact with God does double duty as a ceiling, suggesting the Almighty's perpetual presence -- a presence Salieri increasingly believes to be a mocking one. Matthew Dettmer's costumes are similarly sumptuous, although Salieri, even at his glitziest, favors blacks and grays.

Local audiences had a chance to glean additional background on Mozart recently when the Baltimore Choral Arts Society presented Robert Levin's stirring completion of the composer's Requiem, which figures prominently in "Amadeus." Like Mozart's intentions for the unfinished Requiem, the nature of his relationship with Salieri remains speculative. Shaffer's account may be revisionist history, but it offers a fascinating examination of the gulf between ordinary popularity and genuine genius, and it is a genuine pleasure to see it staged with intelligence and style at Everyman.

'Amadeus'

Where: Everyman Theatre, 1727 N. Charles St.

When: 8 p.m. Thursdays through Saturdays (except Nov. 28), 2: 30 p.m. Sundays, 7: 30 p.m. Dec. 1; through Dec. 8

Tickets: $15

Call: (410) 752-2208

Pub Date: 11/20/96

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