RIVALS Shea and Iacovelli.
Poor Antonio Salieri. Try as he might to make his compositions sound more Germanic, the Lombardy-born court composer was forever grouped with other Italians in their suspected nefarious cabals. Peter Shaffer's Amadeus gleefully wrings out every drop of anguish in the man rumored to have poisoned Mozart, and 2nd Story Theatre exquisitely draws out the misery of both of them in a gripping production (through February 17).
Salieri is such a delectable role that the company's artistic director, Ed Shea, couldn't resist stepping out and taking the part, directed by 2nd Story co-founder Pat Hegnauer.
We begin with voiceover whispers around Vienna that Salieri was responsible for the death of his poor (literally) rival. Salieri is an old man at this point, wracked by a guilt likely prompted more by senility than by earlier actions. In telling the story, the playwright has him don the garb of a younger man — by six years — and step back in time. But this production smartly underscores that this is a memory play by having Shea continue throughout in night clothes, carrying a lit candle like a weary Diogenes looking for illumination, if not honesty.
The play is a good example of the effectiveness of theatrical exaggeration. Shea gets thoroughly into the old man's anguish on first hearing the music of young Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (Andrew Iacovelli) as both "the voice of God" and "the voice of an obscene child." Mozart's middle name — "loved by God," indeed — is an insult and affront to his upright rival. By the end of Act One, crazed with envy, Salieri even declares war on his deity.
Shaffer comes up with a delightfully extreme contrast in Mozart's behavior, just the kind of thing that would infuriate the proper, courtly Salieri upon his first encounter. Mozart and fiancé Constanze (Valerie Westgate) are engaged in giggly, sexual play, supplemented by Mozart's incessant scatological joking, with Salieri too embarrassed to announce his unseen presence in the room. Wonderful.
What a cast, spot-on in their roles. In addition to Shea's steady throughline, Iacovelli provides an especially boyish presence and spirit for Mozart, complemented perfectly by Westgate's wide-eyed, spirited Constanze. John Michael Richardson is an enjoyably fatuous Emperor Joseph II, preening before the bows of courtiers (F. William Oakes, David De Almo). Among them, Chris Conte's authoritative Prefect Gottfried van Swieten builds a dignified but intimidating authority as he tries to get Mozart to write an opera of properly noble personages rather than the ordinary people that eventually populate The Marriage of Figaro. Although its premiere was a well-encored success, it was performed only an average of once a month for the rest of its first year, a fact that the playwright uses here to intimate Italianate hanky-panky.
Costume designer Ron Cesario and production designer Trevor Elliott effectively draw us into the period. Between their work and that of the actors, we don't even care that Amadeus plays fast and loose with the facts, such as this prodigy's supposed ability to dash off brilliant compositions without revision.
As for any responsibility of Salieri for Mozart's death, the rumor of a maniacal poisoning didn't begin until many years later and has the credibility of alien abduction headlines. Career roadblocks are more plausible. Although Mozart and his overly controlling father suspected Salieri of undermining the advancement of the younger man, this likely had more to do with professional rivalry than wicked conspiracy. In any event, whatever disputes there might be about history, their music remains their best testimony.