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'The Other Mozart'? Her name was Maria Anna, and she dazzlingly comes to life onstage

'The Other Mozart'? Her name was Maria Anna, and she dazzlingly comes to life onstage
Sylvia Milo rescues Maria Anna Mozart from the historical shadow of her celebrated brother in "The Other Mozart" at the Rubicon Theatre in Ventura. (Rubicon Theatre)

What a difference a chromosome makes. Drop the name Mozart, and for most of us what springs to mind is the familiar figure of Wolfgang Amadeus: a musical prodigy and composer whose gifts were tragically underappreciated in his lifetime.

But the same could be said of his sister, Maria Anna. Sylvia Milo sets out to rectify this historical inequity with her dazzling, original performance piece, "The Other Mozart," at Ventura's Rubicon Theatre.

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Drawn primarily from letters among family members, "The Other Mozart" employs the solo-performer format uniquely suited to depicting the solitary, alienated life of Maria Anna, nicknamed Nannerl. Like her younger brother, she demonstrated precocious musical ability from an early age. The societal conventions of mid-1700s Europe, however, dictated very different creative opportunities for her.

From the outset, the visual centerpiece of director Isaac Byrne's imaginative staging is an upright wire-frame corset attached to an enormous, richly textured ivory skirt that billows in concentric circles over the otherwise bare stage. (The joint creation of costume designers Magdalena Dąbrowska and Miodrag Guberinic, the dress is worthy of a gallery installation all its own.) Clad in lacy bodice and bloomers, Nannerl enters and at first moves freely around this sartorial sculpture in period style choreography.

With an emotional precision that captures and rewards attention throughout, Milo rescues Nannerl's genius from the historical shadow of her brother's. Her gleeful passion recalling the childhood acclaim she earned for her musical virtuosity gives way to mounting despair when, upon reaching marriageable age, she was prohibited from performing while Wolfie was fast-tracked for a court composer position. We all know that his reputation did not soar until after his death, but Nannerl's life, in its own quieter way, turns out every bit as sad.

None of the musical compositions she speaks of with wistful pride have survived, an absence underscored by a superb sound design featuring some of her brother's music, as well as hauntingly beautiful incidental compositions by Nathan Davis and Phyllis Chen.

At the point when Nannerl settles for a comfortable, loveless marriage, Milo finally slides into the dress, transforming it into an immobilizing cage — a far-from-subtle but potent symbol of the crushing of her creative spirit. A frenetically scattered cloud of lavender-scented face powder completes the eclipsed persona whose gravestone reads "sister of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart."

Milo's historical portrait of this gifted woman ahead of her time implores us to consider whether things are different now, but the only honest answer is: not different enough.

♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦

‘The Other Mozart’

Where: Rubicon Theatre, 1006 E. Main St., Ventura

When: 2 and 7 p.m. Wednesdays (with talkbacks), 8 p.m. Thursdays and Fridays, 2 and 8 p.m. Saturdays, 2 p.m. Sundays; ends June 18

Tickets: $34-$59

Info: (805) 667-2900, www.rubicontheatre.org

Running time: 1 hour, 20 minutes

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