Although Peter Shaffer titled his splendid 1979 play "Amadeus," the protagonist isn't Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, but the man who considered Mozart his arch-rival -- Austrian court composer Antonio Salieri.
In Shaffer's interpretation, however, the rage and revenge Salieri feels aren't primarily directed against Mozart, though the young tTC upstart feels the brunt of it. Most of all, Salieri is raging against God -- the "God of Bargains," as he puts it.
But that overweening anger isn't readily apparent in Mitchell Hebert's portrayal of Salieri at Olney Theatre Center. Under Jim Petosa's direction, Hebert's Salieri seems surprisingly cheerful, even pleasant. The story he tells, on the last night of his life, isn't a bitter justification of his actions. It's just an entertaining story, and in this case, that isn't enough.
Salieri's tale is about the bargain he made with God: Let me be a great composer, and I will be virtuous, charitable and pious. Then Mozart, whom Salieri dubbed "an obscene child," took Vienna by storm, and Salieri decided all bargains were off.
Unlikely as it sounds, Hebert almost seems to have based his portrayal on Salieri's painful realization that Mozart was the real thing -- a composer with God-given genius -- whereas he, Salieri, was merely mediocre. A banal sense of mediocrity suffuses Hebert's characterization. It is as if he were saying, "No wonder Salieri's music lacked fire; his entire life lacked fire."
Nor is that shortcoming the only one in this season-opening production. Dan Conway has designed a set that, while visually stunning, is dramatically limited. Consisting mainly of an archway around a steep ramp, the set not only shrinks the playing area, it reduces the number and variety of entrances. For instance, while it is amusing to see David Conaway's randy and infantile Mozart enter by rolling down the ramp with his soon-to-be wife, Carolyn Pasquantonio's silly Constanze, the effect wears thin when repeated.
Conaway's Mozart is one of the production's high points. Besides showing us Mozart's childish side, he also shows us his contrition, suffering and innocence -- without letting us forget that even these are aspects of his emotional immaturity. Pasquantonio also gives an empathetic portrayal of his adoring but suffering wife.
There are a number of other fine portrayals as well, including Christopher Lane and Helen Hedman as the gossips who keep Salieri posted on Mozart's activities (casting a woman in one of these roles is an unusual but effective touch). Then there's Conrad Feininger's portrayal of Baron Van Swieten, the influential Prefect of the Imperial Library. Feininger is appropriately humorless and severe in this role, but he also conveys his ire when required.
Feininger's bio in the program curiously omits the fact that this actor portrayed Salieri in last season's co-production of "Amadeus" by Baltimore's Everyman Theatre and Columbia's Rep Stage. In Van Swieten's scenes with Salieri at Olney, you can see reminders of the fervor Feininger brought to the lead role last season, which accentuates the fervor that is missing from Hebert's interpretation.
When the final note is sounded, Olney's production is a little like listening to a symphony devoid of decrescendos and crescendos. It's pretty, but not especially moving.
Where: Olney Theatre Center, 2001 Route 108, Olney
When: 8 p.m. Tuesdays through Saturdays, 7: 30 p.m. Sundays, matinees 2 p.m. Sundays, through April 26; in rotating repertory with "Racing Demon" May 12-June 21
Pub Date: 4/22/98