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Theater review: 'Amadeus' at the Old Globe

July 10, 2011 |  2:01 pm

AmadeusWhen I first saw Peter Shaffer's play "Amadeus" at a West End theater in 1981, spiky-haired punks prowled the London Underground, King's Road clothing boutiques competed to see which could offer the most outre attire, and flamboyant, ambisexual New Wave bands preened and wailed across the nation's airwaves.

It was the perfect sociocultural context for accepting Shaffer's depiction of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart as a precociously talented, fashion-victim brat with a potty mouth and a hyperactive libido. Never mind that Shaffer's dandyish, infantile, self-delighted Mozart -- a sort of peruked Pee-wee Herman -- had questionable basis in historical fact. The role was a godsend for talented male actors of a certain age, as Tom Hulce proved with his title-role performance in the 1984 movie version, and as Jay Whittaker affirms with his compelling turn in director Adrian Noble's rewarding revival of Shaffer's 1979 work at San Diego's Old Globe.

At first, Shaffer's Mozart is calculated to be as off-putting to us as he is to his rival, Antonio Salieri (Miles Anderson), the Italian Viennese-court composer who is Mozart's fervent admirer, sometimes supporter and increasingly embittered nemesis. When Mozart first appears as a mincing fop in garish clothes, laughing hysterically and babbling obscene baby talk to his wife, Constanze (a feisty, appealing Winslow Corbett), Salieri recoils in fascinated horror, and so, effectively, does the audience.

But not for long. The heaven-blessed genius of the composer of "The Magic Flute" and "The Marriage of Figaro" can't be denied by Salieri, who's smart enough to realize that Mozart's immense, innovative musical talents expose the trifling mediocrity of Salieri's own gifts as a composer. Blaming the Creator for this cosmic injustice, the formerly God-fearing Salieri resolves to destroy Mozart by undercutting him with the fawners and flatterers who populate the court of the Austrian Emperor Joseph II (Donald Carrier, a paragon of smug pomposity).

"Amadeus," of course, is Salieri's play, not Mozart's, which makes it crucial for the audience to identify with Salieri's jealous fits and spiteful rages, to see its own darker nature mirrored in the Italian's pained and shameful self-awareness, as he pleads with a God possessed with a very tricky sense of irony. Anderson's performance invites such a response. Gruffly unapologetic in his villainous treachery, Anderson's Salieri projects a bracingly honest mix of brutal calculation, wry humor and animal cunning that simultaneously repels and seduces. 

Whittaker's admirable achievement, like Hulce's, is to make a plausible human being out of the wild-eyed, scatologically riffing, borderline-madman that Shaffer has invented. The actor brings great emotional conviction to the ravings of this archetypal enfant terrible, lifting the lid of anger and outraged intelligence that sustains Mozart against the sycophants and philistines who just don't get him or his music.

The character's emotional flamboyance also illustrate Shaffer's point that Mozart was a transitional artist, a kind of cultural savior, who rescued opera from its dull, neoclassical fixation with "gods and heroes" and brilliantly transformed it into a truly popular art form that placed beauty and emotional truth on a pedestal.  

Noble has assembled an excellent supporting cast for "Amadeus," particularly Michael Stewart Allen as the imperious Baron Van Swieten, and Georgia Hatzis and Ryman Sneed as the gossipy two-woman Greek chorus, whose fickle allegiances bleed through their false sympathies like a dark stain. 

"Amadeus," Old Globe theater, San Diego. Through Sept. 22. $29-$90. (619) 23-GLOBE or www.theoldglobe.org

MORE THEATRE REVIEWS:

'Peer Gynt' at La Jolla Playhouse

'Jerry Springer: The Opera'

'Moose on the Loose' at Theatre West

 -- Reed Johnson

Photo: Jay Whittaker as Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and Miles Anderson as Antonio Salieri in "Amadeus." Credit: Henry DiRocco

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