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From Vienna, with vitriol

Theatre Tulsa’s production of ‘Amadeus’ is vivid

Will Carpenter as Salieri in Theatre Tulsa’s production of ‘Amadeus’

Peter Shaffer’s play “Amadeus” is a grand inquisition into how low the human spirit can stoop when envy corrupts a mind. True or not, the long-rumored cause of death at thirty-five of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart at the hands of his bitter rival, Antonio Salieri, makes for a rich—if long—evening of theatre.

Shaffer’s film adaptation of the play is likely more familiar to the general public. It features the Oscar-winning tour-de-force by F. Murray Abraham as Salieri at the end of his life and in the time of Mozart’s days in Vienna.

In the play version, two actors portray the sweets-addicted, deeply conflicted composer at different times in his life. Sydney Flack as Salieri in his final hours is a powerhouse of energy, carrying the production with seeming ease. Will Carpenter’s role as the younger Salieri is on par with Flack’s snarling vitriol and mincing insinuations, with a reptilian carriage that conveys imminent danger.

There are other strong performances: Erin Scarberry shows a broad range of qualities in the role of Mozart’s unfortunate wife, Constanze. Andy Axewell and Larry Cochran provide richly detailed characterizations as members of Joseph II’s contentious court.

The ensemble serves as a sort of Greek chorus/stage crew, effectively changing the scenes and providing nattering commentary throughout the story. Impressively, the actors carried their characters’ postures all the way into the wings, rather than breaking into modern movement once off-stage—testimony to finely detailed direction.

In the title character, though, Shaffer has created a problematic role. Mozart, played by Cody McCoy, vanishes from the stage for long periods while we watch Salieri concoct his intrigues. The character often seems a mere plot device.

As Shaffer has crafted Mozart, the composer is a blazing comet of unmatchable talent with a scatological, hyper-sexualized personality. McCoy brings a lively truthfulness to the childish side of the character.

What’s unusually challenging for the actor comes from Shaffer’s attempt to bring some balance to the young genius. He pins a hope for audience empathy on Mozart’s desperation to please his father—and, by extension, Salieri as father surrogate. Shaffer gives little space for development of this undercurrent, however. The father never appears: we have only the repugnant Salieri by which to measure Mozart’s dogged desire to win paternal favor. It’s quite telling that the author chose to include the father in his film adaptation.

The staging of “Amadeus” is wonderfully lean. Whitson Hanna and Jo Jo Nichols, credited as co-directors, have done a fine job moving the characters, including a nine-member ensemble, fluidly across the stage, without the use of intrusive blackouts. Hanna attributes the beautiful stage pictures and movement to Nichols, his former mentor. Hanna’s own work focused a good deal more on characterization and subtext, which is evident throughout.

Overall, the production quality is quite high. There’s credible attention to detail in the costumes and the era-appropriate posturing of the characters. The lighting design by Isaac Holton and sound design by Grant Goodner solidly enhance the production. The selected music of Mozart (and just enough Salieri) is used by the directors to great effect.

Theatre Tulsa’s realization of Shaffer’s towering work provides an evening filled with brilliant language and vivid characters. As with his other well-known play, “Equus,” Shaffer uses a primary character to question the vicissitudes of God. Salieri’s perception of a pro-Mozart deity (“God was singing through this little man to all the world”) is the driving force of the play. It is also Shaffer’s opportunity to speak directly through this character about the nature of faith and morality, as well as the potential of art to lift the human spirit—except when it can’t.

The play is full of exposition and intricate observations—but one detail is ignored: the playwright shrewdly chooses not to reveal that the name Amadeus translates as “beloved of God.”

Shaffer may hope we realize this on our own, but it’s certain that Salieri knew and resented it—all the way to the core of his poisonous soul.

Note: Mature themes and language, and a marathon running time of three-plus hours.

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