BWW Reviews: Handsome AMADEUS at ETC

By: Oct. 20, 2014

Amadeus/by Peter Shaffer/directed by Jonathan Fox/Ensemble Theatre Company (ETC) at the New Vic Theater, Santa Barbara/through October 26 only

Peter Shaffer's incredibly intriguing examination of the demise and death of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart at the hands of Court Composer Antonio Salieri in 1791 Vienna is at the core of Amadeus, which premiered in London in 1979, went on to win a Tony Award as Best Play of 1981 and also an Oscar for the reinvented film version in 1984. It is well reputed that Shaffer used artistic license in creating the play and movie as Mozart and Salieri were never official rivals/foes, but, yes or no, it certainly makes for divinely pleasant theatricality, now in a handsome revival at ETC in Santa Barbara through October 26.

Directed with panache by ETC's artistic director Jonathan Fox and featuring a top notch cast headed by Daniel Gerroll as Salieri and Randy Harrison as Mozart, Amadeus still attracts positive attention especially for its dynamic character portrayals and for its curious perspective on 18th century art and politics. As depicted Salieri was a serious and dedicated composer and a good Catholic, and as such, could never come to terms with God using the crude and obscene Mozart as his conduit for musical beauty and perfection. Mozart composed in his head and when he transcribed a score onto paper, it was flawless, whereas Salieri struggled incessantly to achieve compositions of far lesser merit. Salieri serves as narrator of the piece and confesses that he, out of jealousy, caused Mozart to lose jobs, to suffer and eventually, he claims, he induced his death. Yet, even after death, Mozart's fame and brilliance soared, catapulting Salieri to the role of patron saint of mediocrity.

As written by Shaffer, Salieri is a witty and charming villain; Mozart, an obscene child who hates all traditional Italian opera - that he brands as tedious - and who possesses an uncanny genius for composing innovative works of art. Mozart strives to be the best there is, but turns everyone off, as the court finds his endeavors unconventional and overly embellished with "too many notes". When he attempts to include dance as part of a wedding scene in "Figaro", he is told by Count Orsini-Rosenberg (John Apicella) that it will not please the emperor and must be removed. Salieri, of course, steps in the way of Mozart being named a tutor in the court and insults Mozart's wife Constance (Zoe Chao) by seducing her and then refusing her advances in exchange for favors to her husband. Salieri plays nasty but theatrically his playfulness entices as Mozart suffers, slipping into a state of madness. For the audience it's almost like watching a melodrama, relishing every villainous act even though we know full well the uber perilous implications.

Gerroll makes a deliciously conniving Salieri. We should despise him, but cannot. Harrison is bold, bizarre and infectiously childlike as the musical genius, enigma that was Mozart. Harrison particularly nails his emotional instability and gullibility. Chao does an excellent job in playing the loyal Stanzie, whose marriage to Mozart is laden with heartbreak. She wins our sympathy. Other members of the fine cast include Apicella, Bo Foxworth as the seemingly weak emperor, Robert Lesser as stubborn Baron van Swieten, Mila Wizel as Salieri's student, soprano Katherina Cavalieri and two wonderful performances by Justin Stark and Louis Lotorto as the Venticelli, servants who are in and out with short critiques and tidbits of gossip as they change set pieces throughout. Fred Kinney has designed a functionally elegant set with an attractive scrim behind which court members sit and posture - displaying them as in a tableau - and Dianne K. Graebner's costumes are period colorful.

Amadeus is a striking piece of writing for Peter Shaffer whose intellectual prowess and keen sense of predilection for high entertainment never let down. ETC under Fox's skilled guidance as director present a production that is highly worthy of reverence.