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Main Stage

AMADEUS by Peter Shaffer
June 20-July 8

Directed by Eric Hill
Starring Jonathan Epstein as Salieri and Randy Harrison as Mozart

Review by Seth Rogovoy, critic-at-large, Berkshire Living

The Berkshire Theatre Festival kicks off its 2006 Main Stage season with a bang with a most appropriate production of AMADEUS in this 250th anniversary year of Mozart's birth. But more than that, the Peter Shaffer play celebrates the art of theater itself, and is given a production that emphasizes the theatrical conceit, the complicity between the audience and the actors, and underlines the themes of the play itself -- the notion of creativity as a spiritual undertaking or gift.

These are themes that were closely aligned to those explored in last year's BTF production of EQUUS, also by Shaffer and also featuring Randy Harrison, but here they are forefronted in the staging, lighting, costumes, and Shaffer's very neo-Brechtian script.

Fortunately, any awkwardness brought about by Shaffer's clunky efforts to implicate the audience in the play's action are smoothed over and even made graceful by the stellar cast and crew assembled for this production. The lion's share of the credit goes to Jonathan Epstein, whose commanding, dynamic presence and maturity is tailor-made for the role of the envious Salieri, the court composer who at any other time would have been considered a top-notch artist, but in comparison to the upstart prodigy Mozart is destined to be seen, by others and most heartbreakingly by himself, as a professional mediocrity.

Thus is Salieri plunged into anguish and torment, railing largely against the God he believed in but whom he now curses.

In spite of the name of this play, the story is Salieri's, and Salieri himself tells it. The entire play, in fact, is framed by Salieri's direct address to the audience, breaking the fourth wall, acknowledging that what is about to take place is a play, even to the point of having the house lights turned on -- just one of many times throughout the evening that Matthew E. Adelson's evocative lighting design does as much as any other element to aid the telling of the story.

From the beginning the drama is heightened by the delayed entrance of Mozart, whom we keep hearing about but don't meet until nearly a half hour into the play. When we finally meet him, it's very much through Salieri's eyes, eavesdropping on a salacious, scatalogical tryst he's having with his wife-to-be. Those familiar with Timothy Hulce's portrayal of Mozart in the film version of AMADEUS will recognize many of the same behevioral tics and characteristics -- the high-pitched squeal of delighted laughter, the obsession with flatulence and elimination -- but Randy Harrison puts his own stamp on the characterization of Mozart, as an outwardly devilish, fun-loving individualist who sees through so much of the hypocrtical formality of the old feudal order in its waning days. That same impulse to overthrow the old order, to shake things up, runs through his music, we will learn.

After observing Mozart up close, Salieri concludes that "goodness is nothing in the furnace of art," and thus rids himself of his self-imposed virtue in a sort of Faustian attempt to gain prominence through other means. The lighting grows dark and moody as Mozart's fortunes wane while Salieri's wax, seemingly succeeding at having gained through deceit and manipulation what he could not by other more honest means.

Epstein's challenge is complicated, as he needs to go back and forth from narrating the story as an elderly mjan at the end of his life -- maybe at the end of his rope -- and then revert to acting in the moment, learning what it is that we have already seen him know. Few actors could have pulled this off with such commanding authority, and it's hard to imagine a single performance later this season rising to the level of Epstein's.

Harrison hits all the right notes as the exuberant, insouciant Mozart. His is a very outward-based performance, which works for the most part, as the script emphasizes the brash outwardness of his character and relies on our knowledge of his music to convince of his inner genius. The two were at odds in the second half, however, when Harrison is given a big speech about the role of opera and music, it's a funny and dynamic speech, but also a serious one, and here was the moment when we could have been given a glimpse into the inner, deeper Mozart, but Harrison came up short, seeming a little unconvincing, or rather, unconvinced in his internal commitment to what he was saying. One can easily imagine, however, that over the course of the run of the play Harrison will grow more comfortable with this soliloquy, and find the inner depths that as of opening night were still elusive to the actor as well as the audience.

The supporting cast also hit all the right notes, led by Walter Hudson's pitch-perfect, clueless ruler, Joseph II. His sycophantic court were all duly servile yet each brought something unique to their roles.

The play looked and sounded terrific (kudos also to sound designer Nathan Leigh), and it's hard to lose with an evening of Mozart brought to life by characters from his time. This most theatrical of plays, a musical without music, a theater work about art and creativity, sets the bar high for the rest of BTF's mainstage season, as well as that of all the Berkshire summer theater festivals.

BTF's AMADEUS is an incredibly entertaining, funny, musical night at the theater that reminds us why we need theater to answer the most important questions about how we live our lives.

--Seth Rogovoy, Berkshire Living, critic-at-large

P.S. For more on Amadeus, read my friend Michael Eck's review of the play from the Albany Times Union

Thanks for posting your review of AMADEUS, and for the link to the review from the Albany Times Union. How long will we have to wait to read a review of this play in our hometown paper, the Berkshire Eagle?

You are correct in your prediction that Mr. Harrison would becme more comfortable with Mozart's soliloquy. He truly nailed every aspect of the part- both comic and serious - at the Saturday matinee and evening performances. Saturday brought a standing ovation, which did not occur on Friday. The audience was definitely very taken with both Messrs Epstein AND Harrison.

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