The depiction of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart as a bawdy, spoiled, scatologically minded brat may provoke some classical music buffs to hurl down their opera glasses in outrage. But it makes for an engaging theatrical premise, though a frequently misunderstood one.
Due in large part to Milos Forman's enormously successful 1984 film version, "Amadeus" is popularly perceived as a "historical drama" about the life and death of one of the 18th-Century's greatest musical geniuses. In reality, the work's questionable historical accuracy is largely irrelevant and its treatment of Mozart oddly tangential. This is made clear in a production such as the Santa Barbara City College Theatre Group's--one that achieves a few moments of genuine luminance amid generally competent, but less than inspirational, staging.
In writing the original play (on which the film was based), Peter Shaffer began with a singular historical incident: At the end of his life, onetime Viennese Court composer Antonio Salieri claimed responsibility for Mozart's premature death. Through the narrated recollections of the aging composer, the entire play is an attempt to fabricate a set of dramatic circumstances that might account for this unsupported confession.
The play never asks us to accept that the events in Salieri's account are true, only that Salieri believes them to be true. As in "Equus," Shaffer's other drama of fictionalized criminal aberration, we find ourselves in the realm of psychological rather than historical exploration of the darker corners of human obsession.
Jeff Mills in the role of Salieri evokes a frighteningly icy portrait of a man so frustrated by his own mediocrity that he's compelled to destroy the gifted Mozart. Much to his credit, Mills makes it clear that this is more than a simple jealous clash of rival talents.
Salieri's lifelong prayer has been to become the instrument of God's voice expressed in its purest form--music. Attempting to make himself worthy of God's selection, he's devoted himself to strict moral behavior. Yet for all his piety and self-denial, his creations are at best the commonplace fare that wins popular acceptance only among the fools he despises.
Imagine Salieri's fury when the perfect music he could never compose pours effortlessly from the belching, braying Mozart (played by David Ray). As with the alleged murder plot, it matters very little whether Mozart was in fact the ill-behaved "creature" shown here--Salieri has cast him as the embodiment of all the vulgar impulses he's repressed in himself. The thought that God has chosen to speak through this monster is intolerable to him, and with grim determination, Mills acts out Salieri's decision to thwart God's will, using his political influence to cut off every source of Mozart's financial support.
Mills also registers the full brunt of the play's irony, as Salieri's crimes go unpunished by a supremely indifferent deity.
What director Rick Moxler has done most successfully here is to reclaim the play as a religious conflict, not a personal vendetta. "I had no quarrel with Mozart," Salieri tells us. "My quarrel was with God." But while the issues are clear, many of the emotional nuances that propel Shaffer's drama fall flat.
While Mills' performance in the flashbacks is right on the money, his scenes as the old Salieri are too similar in character to his younger self, missing an important opportunity to show us the ravages of years spent gnawing on the twisted roots of his own impotent fantasies.
Mozart's significance is downplayed perhaps a little more than intended because Ray never quite makes his excesses believable. He seems too much like a nice kid trying to force himself to be obnoxious. His one convincing scene comes after discovering his wife Constanze cavorting with some men at a party--here at least he makes Mozart's anger and humiliation his own. But these are such normal reactions that they never further our belief in him as a being inhabiting the sacred and profane poles of human experience.
On the plus side, the portrayal of Mozart's earthy, unschooled wife by Cynthia Ireland manages to evoke genuine sympathy in a script practically devoid of feminine sensibilities.
The 19-member supporting cast boasts more appropriately aged performers from the local acting community than one would expect from a college production, significantly boosting the production's realism.
Mary Gibson's impeccably detailed period costumes sustain the visual interest in an otherwise sparse but lushly painted neoclassic set by Patricia L. Frank. Fortunately, the stone pillars are set far enough apart to accommodate those ladies' ballooning skirts with their wire-frame panniers.
While the production incorporates selections from 28 musical works by Mozart and his contemporaries, the overall impression afterward is surprisingly unmusical, due in large part to muddled sound engineering characteristic of the Garvin Theatre.
Attempting adventurous material such as this brings its share of risks. While this Amadeus doesn't always live up to its ambitions, in its best moments the haunted figure of Salieri evokes a powerful reminder of where the obsessive pursuit of perfection devoid of human contact can lead us.
* WHERE AND WHEN
Performed Thursdays, Fridays, and Saturdays at 8 p.m., Sundays at 7 p.m., through March 23, at the Garvin Theatre at Santa Barbara City College. Tickets for Friday and Saturday night performances are $12, Thursday evening and Sunday matinee seats are $10. Discounts are available to seniors and students. Call (805) 965-5935 for reservations or further information.