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Rock me, Amadeus

by Jules Becker
Thursday Dec 1, 2016

Matthew Zahnzinger as Salieri, Cody Sloan as Mozart in "Ama- deus," by Moonbox Productions. Photo by Earl Christie
Matthew Zahnzinger as Salieri, Cody Sloan as Mozart in "Ama- deus," by Moonbox Productions. Photo by Earl Christie  

Amadeus, Moonbox Productions, Plaza Theatre, Boston Center for the Arts, through December 17, 617-933-8600 or bostontheatrescene.com

In what many are calling a post-fact age, dramatic license remains an accepted stage device. After all, art and life are not the same though dictators and unscrupulous politicians try to blur or remove the differences between them. Calling these differences to mind is the riveting Moonbox Productions revival of "Amadeus" (1979) at the Boston Center for the Arts. The late British playwright Peter Shaffer deservedly won a Tony Award (1981) for this still stunning look at court favorite Antonio Salieri, protean genius Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and a late 18th century Europe that often embraced mediocrity over brilliance. The play may take some liberties with the facts about both composers, but gifted Moonbox director Allison Olivia Choat passionately plays all the right notes in a triumphant effort. At the same time, IRNE Award -winning actor Matthew Zahnzinger (last season in Titanic Theatre's "The Polish Joke") demonstrates his amazing range in a powerfully disturbing portrayal of Salieri.

Shaffer's play, inspired by an 1831 Pushkin short play simply entitled "Mozart and Salieri," similarly sees the two composers as rivals though they seem to have respected each other. In fact, Salieri actually play Mozart works during the latter's life and even taught his younger son Franz Xavier (as well as the likes of Liszt and Beethoven). Even so, there were sources of friction. Mozart did sense that Salieri, the director of the Italian Opera, was working with other Italians to keep his Austrian counterpart from obtaining posts and staging some operas in the 1780's and landing the prestigious position of tutor to Princess Elisabeth.

Shaffer has included such real factors in a strong theatrical conflict in which Salieri ranges from jealousy and feigned friendship with his colleague to betrayal and determination to kill the rival he sees as God's favorite. That perceived favoritism for an excessively drinking and coarse Mozart nags at devoutly Catholic Salieri so much so that he questions God's judgment and pledges to ruin the Deity's chosen one. Impacting Mozart's finances and way of life becomes Salieri's very effective strategy in the play. Shaffer cleverly frames "Amadeus"- the title tellingly meaning 'love of God' as well as being Mozart's middle name-with an old and wheelchair-bound Salieri chronicling the genesis and development of the rivalry and its effect on his life, music and religious beliefs. While there is no evidence that Salieri actually poisoned Mozart (as rumor claimed) -and the cause of the latter's death may never be known, Salieri-who announces that he killed him-did suffer dementia in his last days as presented here. Liberties aside, "Amadeus" has a lot to say about obsessive jealousy and the mysterious nature of genius as well as these very different composers.

Under Choat's tight direction, both are vividly portrayed. Matthew Zahnzinger captures Salieri's vulnerability as an old man along with his venom during his long career at court. Look for a richly complex portrayal- with amusing attention to Salieri's gluttonous sweet tooth and contrasting cold deception as Mozart mistakenly calls him 'friend.' Highpoints are Zahnzinger's pathos-rich moments as Salieri rages at God and his expressive awe and amazement listening to part of Mozart's sublime opera "The Magic Flute.''

Cody Sloan is equally convincing in the supporting role of Mozart- sharply catching his man child mirth and delight at the ease of creating landmark works like "The Marriage of Figaro.'' Sloan smoothly balances Mozart's epithet-rich earthiness, his deep caring for wife Constanze Weber and loner demeanor as his life grows more challenging. Caroline Keeler has the right combination of loving support and tenacity as Constanze. Arthur Gomez is properly pompous as Count Orsini-Rosenberg, and Andrew Winson finds Baron van Sweiten's relative humorlessness and OCD seriousness.

The Moonbox design team proves a solid complement to the strong cast. Jeffrey E. Salzberg's nuanced lighting matches the ups and downs of the composers- especially in the later going. David Lucey's handsome costumes reflect Salieri's affluence and Mozart and Constanze's simpler attire. Cameron McEachern's skills as properties master add considerable detail to the spare elegance of his set design.

The informative Moonbox playbill smartly lists the all-important musical excerpts in order of appearance, and music director Dan Rodriguez and a complement of talented musicians-Grand Harmonie members among them-do full justice to the Mozart and Salieri repertoires.

At a key moment of insight, Mozart speaks of God hearing the world as millions of sounds. The sounds in Moonbox's soulful "Amadeus" are very much worth everyone's time.

For "Amadeus,", Moonbox is pairing with Food for Free, a non-profit organization that recovers fresh food that might otherwise be discarded and provides fresh produce and healthy meals for emergency food programs and individuals in need. Besides a table at the BCA, theatergoers can go to www.foodforfree.org/join to help.

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