Reviewed by Judy Richter
After the tragically untimely death of Mozart (1756-1791), it was rumored that Salieri (1750-1825) had poisoned him. It's more likely that kidney failure was to blame.
Hillbarn Theatre's production, directed by Leslie Lloyd, features Jerry Lloyd (the director's husband) as Salieri and Ross Neuenfeldt as Mozart.
Shaffer's fictionalized take on their relationship focuses not on Salieri's having poisoned Mozart but on the elder composer's doing everything in his power to thwart Mozart's career. In the process, Mozart is reduced to abject poverty while most audiences at the time fail to appreciate his genius.
Salieri, however, recognizes it immediately and realizes that Mozart's music is far superior to his. He regards it as a gift from God. Thus, Salieri is rankled to his soul, for as a young man he had promised God that he would live an upright and virtuous life if only he could become a great composer.
This approach works for quite some time as Salieri achieves fame and fortune, earning a lucrative position in the court of Emperor Joseph II (Ray D'Ambrosio). Hearing Mozart's music and meeting the young man causes Salieri to renounce his vow to God and instead to undermine Mozart. In the meantime, Salieri pretends to be Mozart's friend and ally. When Mozart advances despite Salieri's efforts, the hypocritical Salieri takes credit.
Making Salieri's hatred for Mozart even greater is that while his music appears to come straight from God, the man himself is callow, shallow and uncouth. Salieri privately calls him an obscene child.
As the play opens, Salieri is an old, feeble, guilt-wracked man in November 1823. He then recounts the events from 1781 to Mozart's death in 1791.
Hillbarn's production runs three hours and 15 minutes with one intermission. Part of that length comes from the script, which could use some judicious cutting. For example, the opening scene with Salieri in his wheelchair goes on too long.
Perhaps the other part of the length comes from the direction and the differing levels of acting ability. Lloyd, the only Equity (professional) actor in the production, is superlative. Likewise, Neuenfeldt as Mozart is excellent, making him a more sympathetic character than seen in some productions and believably navigating his physical and mental decline. Also noteworthy in the cast is Lauren Rhodes as Constanze Weber, who becomes Mozart's wife.
The set by Kuo-Hao Lo is flexible but unattractive, and some missed cues in Matthew Johns' lighting design don't help. Lisa Claybaugh's costumes and the wig and hair designs by Aviva Raskin evoke the era. Sound by Jon Hayward features tantalizing snippets from great Mozart works like "Cosi Fan Tutte," "The Marriage of Figaro," "The Magic Flute," "Don Giovanni" and others.
The play holds some fascination not only for its music but also for its exploration of the man-God relationship, something that Shaffer also examined in his more successful "Equus."
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