Struggling with Genius: AMADEUS

Photo: Andrew Brilliant / Brilliant Pictures

Presented by New Repertory Theatre
A play with music by Peter Shaffer
Directed by Jim Petosa

Arsenal Center for the Arts
Watertown, MA
April 28th – May 19th, 2013
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Review by Craig Idlebrook

(Watertown) The story goes that an earnest young monk once asked a Zen master to describe the immaculate nature of the Buddha.  The Zen Master, most likely with an insufferable grin on his face, pointed to a pile of dung.

This sums up the life of Antonio Salieri (Benjamin Evett) in the spirited production of Amadeus being staged at the Arsenal Center for the Arts.  Salieri, an accomplished composer who writes operas for Hapsburg monarchs, dedicates his life to capture the music of God.  Instead, he discovers his own private dung heap in the form of a foul-mouthed former child prodigy named Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (Tim Spears).  Salieri is crushed to learn that Mozart, a drunk, womanizing jerk, has a much clearer channel to God’s radio station and can compose the most beautiful music the world has ever known, even while playing billiards.  It drives the devout Italian composer to lose both his faith and his scruples.

Director Jim Petosa’s staging of Peter Shaffer’s Tony-winning script never plays it safe.  The one directive in this production is to make every moment interesting, and Petosa populates the stage with imaginative scene-stealing characters who say so much with their very humpfs and sighs.  Spears especially succeeds in unlocking L’Enfant terrible of Mozart, making him dashing one moment, idiotic the next.  He is the smartest guy in the room and the village idiot in a single utterance.

However, the play lags at times with the heavy dollops of asides dished out by Salieri, where he parses and justifies his every move and thought.  Shaffer’s script is strong, but it sometimes can’t decide if it should be staged or simply read and contemplated.  An actor more comfortable with the material might be able to captivate the audience with these asides, but Evett at times succumb to wringing the emotion out of each word.  It’s difficult material; Shaffer even decided to write in a confessor for Salieri in the 1984 film version of Amadeus, most likely to give the actor F. Murray Abraham some space to tell the story in a more natural way.  It worked, as Abraham took home an Academy Award for Best Actor.

When I found myself tuning out during the long discussions of motivation, my eyes focused on the captivating scenery that was being chewed.  Cristina Todesco creates a geometrically-beautiful, postmodern stage that consciously echoes the artwork found in the most exquisite mosques of the world.  In these sacred halls, the artists believed it was not their job to capture the image of God, but to celebrate the mystery of the unknown in shapes, patterns and the same pure mathematics that make up the finest music of humanity.  In this play, Salieri would have been wise to take note.

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