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A CurtainUp Review
By David Lohrey
Philadelphia's esteemed Wilma Theater brings this familiar melodrama to a younger generation who may have missed the Peter Hall productions. The theater is the perfect size for this story of the deathbed confessions of Antonio Salieri, the admired court composer whose own dedicated virtue couldn't tolerate the nonchalant genius of the child prodigy. Mozart's gifts could only be understood by Salieri as God's joke on mankind; how else could one explain this "obscene" genius who seemed able to "transcribe" God's voice without effort and , who could compose music with one hand while playing billiards with the other.
This production does justice to Shaffer's accessible and entertaining material. Where Peter Hall's production was stately and grand, Jiri Zizka brings us a more American and, therefore, a less elegant Court. Gone are the posh British accents, the grand gestures, and lovely poses. Emperor Joseph II (Christian Kauffman) is both matter-of-fact, perhaps in keeping with his comic loss for words ("There it is.", and physical awkwardnes. This last is true of the entire Court, with the exception of Salieri (Dean Nolen) who is refined, condescending, and suitably pompous. Dean Nolen succeeds in his duel roles as the old, dying Salieri, with a wonderful Italian wheeze and memorable sigh, and as the dashing but jealous Court Composer who knows a good thing when he hears it even if nobody else can.
Director Zizka, who has an Eastern European background, seems to be aiming for a Court that is a bit ragged and insecure. It is a brilliant choice that goes a long way toward explaining the pretentions of the Court, and Mozart's (Drew Hirshfield) drive to stage the "virtues" of the common man. Hirshfield is every bit as obnoxious as he needs to be and then some; we hate him at first as does Salieri, and then gradually we come to love him. His lovely wife Constanza (Mary Rasmussen) is suitably common, and clashes well with Salieri.
The design team has put together a striking and endlessly innovative set that captures various settings, which include the court itself, Salieri's sitting room, Mozart's lodgings, as well as other public places including the streets of Vienna. Here we meet Salieri's "Venticelli," his paid informants, played to great comic effect by Jered McLenigan and Peter Pryor.
While I missed the flare and polish of Hall's production, Zizka's approach makes intelligent sense of Shaffer's text and that, I dare say, is what a playwright must surely hope for.
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