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More than a pain in the neck: Harrison as Amadeus.

The Tragic Touch

 By Ralph Hammann

Amadeus

By Peter Shaffer, directed by Eric Hill

Berkshire Theatre Festival, through July 8

Last year in a review of the Berkshire Theatre Festival’s production of Peter Shaffer’s Equus, directed by Scott Schwartz, I wrote, “It would have been exciting to see what vigorous direction Eric Hill might have brought to this piece, which is clearly not ideal stomping ground for Schwartz.” The answer is that the BTF’s former flirtation with Shaffer has become romance under Hill’s sure-footed direction.

As in that earlier play, Shaffer is again trying to find a modern means of locating the tragic forces in a world where the Gods have become the gods and man’s epic struggles with them have been supplanted by less- cathartic battles with computer freezes and heating bills. It has been argued that tragedy, in the classic sense, is dead in the modern world. Irony, absurdity, leaders like George Bush and bad productions of Shakespeare would seem to have dealt the mortal blows. Fortunately though, writers like Arthur Miller and Shaffer have kept the tragic sense alive even when, in the case of Amadeus, it is couched in a melodrama.

As in Equus, Shaffer (like Miller) is concerned with the plight of rather-more- common beings than the giants of Sophocles. Amadeus takes its title from one of its principle characters, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, but its true protagonist is Antonio Salieri, musical advisor to Frederick II, emperor of Austria. Until Mozart bursts into the Viennese court, it is Salieri who is the star composer despite the fact that his music is at the ochre end of mediocre. However, whatever talent he lacks as a composer, Shaffer’s Salieri is cursed with a superb musical ear that makes him both recognize and resent Mozart’s genius. Worsening Salieri’s situation is Mozart’s childish and frequently coarse behavior. To be in the company of an artist who is so gifted and uncouth, Salieri takes personally as an insult from God.

The compelling action of the play is Salieri’s attempt to redress God by destroying Mozart. But Salieri is not a simple villain; he has a conscience, and therein lies the tragedy—if the production has a strong Salieri. It is little surprise that the BTF strikes no false notes with Jonathan Epstein in that role. Epstein rises to the challenge of playing the villainous and self-tormented character just as the audience rises in appreciation of this consummate actors’ gifts.

What does surprise is that Epstein is not thrilling in the role. While far better than F. Murray Abraham in the egregious, watered-down film version, Epstein doesn’t plumb the depths nor find the majesty that David Suchet did in the 2000 Broadway revival. Where Suchet commanded the stage and subtly inhabited Salieri, Epstein holds the stage in a performance that seems a bit studied at times.

What also surprises in Eric Hill’s customary vital direction is a merciful shift in how Mozart is presented. With Randy Harrison in the role, we are finally given a Mozart who, despite his vulgarities, is likeable, charming and believable. While the childish laugh (that became a trademark of all the Mozarts I have seen portrayed in Amadeus) is still there, it is silly without becoming caricaturishly annoying. Even though his Mozart speaks most of the same words as actors before him, Harrison makes us both hear and feel them. And with a more dimensional Mozart, Salieri’s action has far more consequence. Here he not only destroys a musical genius, but also a flesh-and-blood man as opposed to a braying jackass begging to be put out of our misery.

From Tara Franklin’s comely Constanze Weber to Walter Hudson’s obtuse Emperor to Bob Jaffe’s angular Count, the supporting cast is uniformly strong and, courtesy of Olivera Gajic’s sumptuous costumes, variedly colorful. Karl Eigsti’s appropriately heavy set is lit perhaps a bit too brightly by Matthew E. Alderson and makes too frequent use of fully opening and closing white curtains.

More Is Less

 

All Is Not

By Melissa James Gibson, directed by Martha Banta

Adirondack Theatre Festival, through July 1

The most telling moment in the world premiere of Melissa James Gibson’s All Is Not occurs when wealthy Audrey and Arthur (Rebecca Nelson and Christopher McCann) stand and natter in front of the locked white exterior door and two windows of their home during a thunderstorm. In a pique over middle-aged Arthur’s confessed infidelity—after Audrey has confessed her long-ago infidelity—Audrey suddenly galumphs off the porch, takes two steps down the stairs, turns right and stands exactly under an overhanging nozzle and gets wet.

It’s a showy moment that highlights precisely what’s wrong with All Is Not; this is less a play than a series of verbal and theatrical stunts rendered in random acts of cleverness that semaphore their importance. Why make it wet on stage only in that precise spot when the rest of the four set pieces are done in sparse outlines, the rain long ago established by the sound and lights and the trickles of water down the two story drop across upstage? Because watching the actress getting wet is at least interesting for a moment. That moment passes, and then you just have a wet actress.

The four locales (outside an upscale home, in an upscale bathroom, at a Manhattan dry cleaner, during an upscale middle-schooler’s school presentation) and four stories being told (lost keys, lost dress, lost hair, lost childhood) have several thin threads connecting each to the other, as fourth graders might have Dixie cup “telephones” connected by string from one backyard to another. And like a Dixie cup, All Is Not doesn’t hold much. The black pipe scaffolding set, the raised platform, the white shower curtain with running water, the dry cleaner’s mechanical rotary full with clear plastic clothes bags that whirl left and right, and the raised platform with lectern and slide carousel are all evidence of the supreme effort to give All Is Not a substantial production that the play doesn’t earn.

The play opens with balding, alienated upscale father Richard (Mark Setlock) standing upstage of the upscale sink that stands on the top of the massive dry-cleaner carousel that takes up most of stage right. He counts his lost hairs.

The uptight, upscale Shelley (Colleen Werthmann) bursts into the Korean dry cleaner frantic for her dress; she’s lost the ticket, but Kyung-Soon (Haerry Kim) tells her pleasantly, “No problem” while assistant Hyun (Mina Kim) whirls the empty clothes bags on the carousel to find the lost dress.

Middle-schooler Chad (Malcolm Morano) gives a rambling presentation with slides of a lost tribe’s lost lifestyle, while slipping in snippets of his lost family life with his just-divorced parents, who kibitz him offstage.

In 86 minutes, All Is Not lives up to its title. The audience laughs occasionally, some lines are connected and repeated through the four stories, the rain rains in every locale, most of the things lost stay lost (ATF had been developing the play for four years with the title Lost, but changed it to prevent confusion with the TV series). Upscale materialism is smacked with the subtlety and skill of a gorilla with a dead branch. There’s a germ of an idea in All Is Not, but the too clever, too showy, too superficial staging and playing act as antibiotics. ATF’s Artistic Director Martha Banta has midwifed many excellent new plays, from Fully Committed to Barbara’s Blue Kitchen to Bingo! to last year’s excellent Girl in the Frame, but All Is Not needs more womb time.

—James Yeara


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