Westwego's Salieri vs. 'Amadeus' is darkly comic, rewarding drama

Friday November 24, 06
by David Cuthbert, Times-Picayune Lagniappe

"As for an authentic villain," wrote Colette, "the real thing, the
absolute, the artist, one rarely meets him even once in a lifetime."

Enter Antonio Salieri, composer for the 18th century Austrian court
of Emperor Joseph II. A devout Catholic, Salieri has made a pact with
God to live an exemplary life if only he can compose transcendent
music. Alas, Salieri's work, while pleasing the emperor and audiences
of the day, rarely rises above the mediocre. Worse, Salieri
recognizes this, as he does the rapidly maturing genius of the one-
time child prodigy Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, now in his mid-20s, and
seeking patrons and royal favor to continue his work. Much as he is
loathe to admit it, Salieri is one of the few men who can truly
appreciate the glory that is Mozart.

Jealousy and envy give way to pure hatred when Salieri discovers that
the brilliant young composer, whose prodigious output of pure,
angelic melody, is a foul-mouthed, juvenile hedonist, spewing
scatological humor and arrogant invective, punctuated with giddy
gales of laughter.

How could Salieri's God bestow such abundant gifts upon such a
conspicuously unworthy recipient? Salieri, posing as Mozart's friend
and admirer, works behind his back to ruin his reputation, reduce him
to poverty, rob him of his health and sanity and perhaps giving him
an actual push into the abyss.

Or at least this is the way playwright Peter Shaffer has it in his
literate melodrama, "Amadeus," based on Alexander Pushkin's 1832
play "Mozart and Salieri," which dramatized the conjecture that
Salieri had poisoned Mozart. Shaffer's religious trappings --
suggested by Mozart's middle name (Latin for "God's love") -- add a
high-flown layer to the proceedings, as Salieri loses his faith when
he realizes that "goodness is nothing in the furnace of art."

In Janet Shea's satisfying staging of "Amadeus" at the Westwego Arts
Theatre, she revels in Shaffer's heightened theatricality and plays
up the darkly comedic, mysterious aspects of the work.

Shaffer's framing device is the decrepit, dying (he tells us)
Salieri, conjuring up an audience to tell his version of the story,
going to great pains to let us know that it is he who has the last
laugh. Kris Shaw, who is never offstage, is a brilliantly venomous
Salieri of quicksilver timing, who can dissemble to Mozart's face and
then whip his head quickly to the audience to gloat in triumph. He
gives us a gallery of Salieris, in fact: the pious young idealist;
the composer who knows his limitations (and those of his audience);
the villain who practically salivates over his vicious machinations
and the wizened old sorcerer with one more trick up his sleeve.

Richard Alexander Pomes is every inch the "obscene child" as Mozart,
the vile vessel overflowing with musical ambrosia. He is boyishly
brash, a once indulged and now untamed wild child whose personal
vulgarity colors opinions of his work. Salieri disdainfully calls
him "The Creature," but as Pomes makes clear in his performance,
Mozart is both a hubristic phenomenon, aware of his own gift, and a
bewildered child star, once celebrated and now baselessly criticized.
He is Peter, panned. As Pomes' "Wolfie" becomes progressively more
vulnerable, physically and mentally, this impressive young actor is
infinitely touching.

The supporting cast is excellent, with Stocker Fontelieu celebrating
60 years on the stage as the haughty opera director who gets the
play's best line as he dismisses Mozart's music with, "Too many
notes!" Michael Cahill is the dense, pompous emperor who imagines
himself to be benevolent, Casey Leigh Thompson Mozart's silly,
soubrettish wife. Joe Akin is the decent young baron scandalized by
Mozart's revealing Masonic rituals in "The Magic Flute." And Scott
Sauber and J. Michael Tramontin are the smirking "Venticelli, " a kind
of defamer.com who provide Salieri with the latest in court gossip.

Since the play takes place in Salieri's mind, Isabel and Moriah
Curley-Clay have provided a suitably surreal, elegantly mad
environment: two baroque sections of wall leaning woozily in, book-
ending a giant gilt picture frame, tilted at an odd angle, as if it
had been flung from the sky and imbedded itself in the stage. (Hello,

"Amadeus" has its longueurs, but remains rewarding theater for the
reasonably attentive, wittily wicked one moment, unexpectedly moving
the next.