At some point in their adult lives, most people bump up against the glass ceiling of their limitations. It’s the moment at which they realize their ambitions outstrip their physical, intellectual or emotional abilities. If the person has a strong ego (and I use that term in the Freudian sense), he accepts this day of reckoning, shrugs ruefully and moves on.
If the person does not — or if this moment shatters not just the self-image but something equally foundational like, say, faith in God — then something curdles inside him, and you have the premise for a hit play.
“He from the ordinary created legends, whereas I from the legendary created only the ordinary,” composer Antonio Salieri moans about his archrival Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart in the second act of Amadeus, now playing on Santa Paula Theater Center’s main stage through March 27. If the tale of two bewigged, classical music composers dukeing it out in the 18th century Viennese court doesn’t excite you, well then, just imagine Jersey Shore meets A Separate Peace.
The play is told in flashback through the eyes of Salieri (Patrick McMahon), a real-life contemporary of Mozart, since lost to the sands of time. Salieri, we come to understand, struck a devil-and-Daniel-Webster sort of deal with God as a young man: make me a famous composer, he prayed, and I will spend my life praising you through music.
All seems to be going according to plan at the play’s open. Salieri has ingratiated himself at court as favored composer to the emperor (Todd Andrew Ball), and he tutors a handful of students, including a promising, beautiful young songstress named Katerina (Olivia Heulett). But then 26-year-old Mozart (Brian Alexander), a vulgar prodigy with the giggle of a jackass and the music of an angel, crashes into town and Salieri’s world comes crashing down.
At first repelled, Salieri becomes obsessed with understanding the nature of Mozart’s genius. But garden-variety jealousy mixes with spiritual affliction to produce a far more potent cocktail: spiritual crisis. Salieri cannot understand why God has betrayed him, as he sees it, by bestowing talent on a profane mouthpiece while cursing Salieri with awareness of his own mediocrity. When Salieri finally snaps under the pressure, he vows to undermine Mozart, and God, at every turn.
While Salieri plays second fiddle to Mozart in every possible way (note how the more famous composer has hijacked even the play’s title), he would find sweet irony in the fact that between the two parts, Salieri offers the infinitely more nuanced role. It requires an actor capable of eliciting pathos from the audience while maintaining our goodwill, or at least interest, even as he commits despicable acts.
(The demands of the part have not gone unnoticed. When Peter Shaffer adapted his script for the 1984 film, both F. Murray Abraham (Salieri) and Tom Hulce (Mozart) were nominated for Oscars. Abraham won.)
McMahon gives a very strong performance as the jealous composer, but he is not always up to this high-wire balancing act. His Salieri possesses both too much charisma and too little, making his character less hangdog and less pitiable.
Salieri’s predicament is universal — how many of us have never felt our self-regard shattered by a superior talent? — but instead of sharing his building desperation at seeing his small achievements stripped away, we come to see him as a silky-voiced operator. This guilefulness, far more than lack of talent, makes him incapable of producing the majestic music he strives for. Some of McMahon’s best acting comes in the second half, when the sanctifying power of Mozart’s music briefly overshadows his petty insecurities. It is during those rare, jewel-like moments that we witness Salieri’s real flashes of humanity.
Alexander, for his part, manages to infuse a strong likability and sincerity into a character that could otherwise devolve into farce. Last seen in the Simi Valley Cultural Center’s staging of Rent, Alexander brings that production’s exuberance to his portrayal of the boy genius. By turns bratty, infantile and arrogant, Mozart nevertheless possesses an expansiveness of spirit Salieri will never master.
For a play about men, the production has many strong women. Minda Grace Ware is delicious as one half of the venticelli, the “little winds” Salieri sends forth like Rosencrantz and Guildenstern to do his bidding. Heulitt speaks volumes as Katerina even without lines. And Samantha Claire tackles a satisfyingly complex role as Mozart’s wife, Costanze, a woman whose emotional growth comes to outpace her husband’s.
Ball is also marvelous as the priggish Joseph II, who waves off Mozart’s work as having “too many notes,” while Doug Friedlander excels as the musically reactionary baron extolling the virtues of opera. Christina Cover Ferro’s costumes nearly become characters themselves, plotting their owners’ rise and fall through society.
At its heart, the play asks a simple question: could you or could you not hate the person that forces you to acknowledge your own mediocrity at your most cherished vocation? Reflecting on myself — the plodding pace of writing this review, for instance — I can see how you might. Shrug.
Amadeus, Feb. 18 – March 27, Santa Paula Theater Center, 125 S. Seventh St., Santa Paula. Visit www.santapaulatheatercenter.org for tickets.