CEDAR FALLS -- One of the great works of modern dramatic literature, Peter Shaffer's beautifully tragic “Amadeus” opened Friday at the Oster Regent Theater. The play, which details the fictionalized history of the rivalry between real-life composers Antonio Salieri and his far-better-remembered contemporary, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, is a deep and passionate exploration of mankind's relationship to God, art and itself.
The much-forgotten Salieri, serving as both narrator and tragic hero, opens the show a decrepit old man who, despite a lifetime of material success, faces the end of his life twisted in painful knots, a tortured voice howling the name of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. In a moment of clarity, perhaps his last, the shrunken Salieri calls upon otherworldly spirits — the audience —to bear witness to his crimes as he confesses them. As Salieri returns in his mind to a time when he was young, relevant and directly engaged in life, he brings his audience along with him.
Although Salieri and Mozart were real people, both famous in their time, Shaffer’s play is an imaginative excursion into a past in which, not only were these composers rivals, but Salieri was actually a malevolent figure bent on destroying the younger artist and extinguishing the raging font of unbridled talent within him. Modern audiences, keenly aware of Mozart’s musical legacy, will know right off that this fictionalized Salieri cannot possibly succeed in choking off the voice or burying the influence of one of the most beloved composers in history.
But the play is so much more than the petty vengeance of a jealous artist, hungry for recognition. For as Salieri advises his audience, the object of his obsession and target of his pointed misdeeds is not Mozart himself, but rather the God to whom he prays for fame and the power to create meaning and beauty that will last forever through music. As Salieri puts it, Mozart is merely the battleground on which he and the Almighty wage war against each other.
The Cedar Falls Community Theater is to be praised for selecting such an important and fascinating work as “Amadeus” to produce. The text a challenge for performers and audience alike, the language of the piece is intricately wrought in order to render forth its large ideas. Dan Waterbury, who plays Salieri, displays a remarkably deep understanding of the text as well as an uncanny ability to find, reveal and express the music hidden within Shaffer’s written word. It is very rare for a community theater actor to deliver the content and rhythm of a text at once so intelligently and intelligibly. Waterbury’s Salieri, a decadent, well-fed elite, though celebrated and successful, is a hungry wolf starved for something more sublime, a wellspring of divine genius on which the upstart Mozart seems to draw effortlessly.
Jakob Reha also delivers several notable moments of clarity and insight in his interpretation of the eponymous Mozart. One particularly strong instance occurs early in the second act when he delivers a rousing and sincere monologue rebuking the dullness and hypocrisy of the cowardly, compromising artists and patrons who surround him. Reha commands the stage in this moment and arrests his audience with a potent and intelligent idealism appropriate to his character.
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Robin Kime, who plays Mozart’s loving wife Constanze, generates many moments of believable warmth as her character navigates the tempestuous waters between the foolish yet genius reprobate she loves and the seemingly stalwart Salieri whose humanity and compassion, though evident throughout the play, has no influence upon his malevolence toward the vulnerable Mozart and his bride.
In addition to flashes of touching sincerity by the actors, there are some nice touches throughout the technical elements of CFCT’s production, as well. The set, designed by director Alan Malone, includes a raked stage, shaped and painted to evoke 18th century style, but slightly sloped and bent to mirror the aging body and tortured soul of Salieri.
Another element that suggests the play takes place within the tattered mind of its protagonist is Jarad Dettman’s lighting design. Far upstage, at the crest of the painted, raked floor stands a simple entrance curtained with ornate but appropriately dulled fabric. When characters occupy this liminal space, the lights coat them with a beautiful, otherworldly glow, casting them as frozen remnants of Salieri’s torn and tattered memory, which he struggles to stitch together into a statement of meaning for his life before it is extinguished forever, and before he himself is absorbed into the stomach of history, an unmemorable morsel. The stage on which he cleverly dances with malignant phantoms reminds one of a large tongue down which he slides into oblivion.
Shaffer’s play, after all, illuminates its protagonist’s last-ditch effort to achieve the upper hand against the capricious deity who feeds him to the mongrel genius of Mozart. Deceptively simple, the set and lights, along with some lovely period-accurate costumes, join together with the well-articulated text to make a profound thematic statement about what it means to be human.
Anyone interested in partaking of the finest in dramatic literature clearly and lovingly articulated by local artists will enjoy CFCT’s interpretation of “Amadeus.” Mounting a production of a script of this caliber is no mean feat, and the loving efforts of this cast and crew will be obvious to any observer.
Local actor, director, and playwright Joe Frenna teaches at Waterloo East High School and lives in Waverly with his wife, Ann, and their two children.