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Saturday, September 20, 2014

No Mediocrity in Center Stage’s 'Amadeus'

Some people spend their lives searching for fame and fortune only to find out disappointingly that they are merely mediocre as such lofty goals become elusive.  Others find that such gifts are natural and their fame comes easy and enduring. When such people intersect in their life’s journeys, it may not always be pleasant.
That is in essence the core plotline of acclaimed British playwright Peter Shaffer’s 1979 play Amadeus now playing at Center Stage.  It revolves around18th century Vienna Court composer Antonio Salieri (played by Bruce R. Nelson) who was having things go his way until the child prodigy of Salzburg, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, (Stanton Nash) comes on the scene.        
Shaffer is known also for his award-winning work Equus—a completely different type of play from Amadeus though the psyches of the main characters of each are explored.  The latter captured the 1981 Tony Award for Best Play, and the 1984 movie collected four Oscars including Best Picture.
It seems as though Center Stage Artistic Director Kwame Kwei-Armah, who also directed this fine production of Amadeus, has an affinity for attracting works that cogitate how real people would interact with others had such exchanges actually occurred. 

Last year’s The Mountaintop contained such imagination regarding Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s conversations with God following the civil rights leader’s assassination.  In 2015, Center Stage will present One Night in Miami, which speculates how Cassius Clay would spend time in a Miami hotel with the likes of Malcolm X, singer Sam Cooke and footballer Jim Brown after he won a boxing title.
Shaffer’s Amadeus and the relationship between the title character and Salieri is also a fictional account.  Though a definitive cause of Mozart’s early demise has yet to be established, he attributes the composer’s death to Salieri’s poisoning him, or does he really do it?

Salieri loves Mozart’s music but is resentful of the talent in which he believed was bestowed upon Mozart by God.  As a devout Catholic, Salieri assumed God would have rewarded him with that gift instead of the uncouth Mozart.  The resentment builds and Salieri, searching for weaknesses in Mozart’s personality and life, is determined to destroy him while Mozart is convinced he is on his side all along.   Salieri realizes his mediocrity but flourishes while the prodigy declines.
Any play that features celebrated Baltimore actor Bruce R. Nelson is sure to be an immediate upgrade.  He envelops such diverse characters in Center Stage productions as well in performances in other local venues.  Mr. Nelson’s chillingly dark portrayal of Edgar Allen Poe and his depiction of the loony, hilarious Groucho Marx in Animal Crackers are examples of his versatility.

The part of Antonio Salieri in Amadeus, though somewhere in between the aforementioned roles, provides yet another vehicle for Mr. Nelson to showcase his acting chops.  As the narrator for the story, Mr. Nelson changes wigs and clothing tops onstage to journey back and forth from present-day 1823 when he is old and supposedly on the verge of death to the 1780’s when his life changed with the arrival of Mozart. 

Mr. Nelson is the anchor of the play delivering several long soliloquies—a difficult challenge for most actors—with seeming ease.  Though the play is not a comedy per se, Mr. Nelson brings home the few witty retorts through his commentaries adding lightness to the plot.  He pretends to be an ally of Mozart but all the while plotting his demise.  Salieri attempts to seduce Mozart’s wife Constanze (Kayla Ferguson) in an attempt to undermine his rival with Mr. Nelson relishing that role with mischievous enthusiasm.
Any play that features celebrated Baltimore actor Bruce R. Nelson is sure to be an immediate upgrade.
His counterpart, Stanton Nash as Mozart, is wonderful.  His part calls for more action, more physicality than Salieri’s, and Mr. Nash rises to the occasion.  Playing the rather childish, and at times, vulgar Mozart, he come through superbly employing exaggerated voice inflections and mannerisms to amplify his churlish persona. 

Mr. Nash effectively becomes dramatic during the second act to convey Mozart’s desperation for trying to impress the Emperor Joseph II (Kevin Orton) and the court so that he (as is the situation for Salieri) receives salaries and enjoy the freedom to compose music.
Ms. Ferguson plays the role of Mozart’s fiancé then wife nicely as she must contend with his behavior but at the same time, pushing hard for his success.

The remainder of the large cast (by Center Stage standards) does well in their roles.  Jay Russell and Lucia Spina stand out as Venticelli—the court’s local gossips, adding a fun touch to the proceedings with their banter.
Mr. Kwei-Armah’s technical crew shines in this production. David Burdick outfitted the cast in colorfully lavish period garb. 

The set designed by Timothy R. Mackabee presents an ornate drawing room complete with, two large crystal chandeliers, light blue patterned wall paper and gilded door frames.  The cast uses all the entrances and exits in Center Stage’s Pearlstone Theater to keep the action paced well and flowing.  A scaffold above the main stage is designed to simulate the back of an opera stage but is used sparingly.  Mr. Mackabee also transforms the theater’s lobby into the Court of Vienna to add more to the experience.
Michelle Habrick’s lighting design beautifully illuminates the stage and is employed effectively during dramatic moments.  Victoria Delorio provides good use of sound effects especially when coordinating with lighting changes during selected stage entrances through the main door—a clever device.

This production under the direction of Mr. Kwei-Armah sparkles with all the moving parts meshing well.  The performances of the two leads alone are worth a visit.  But you will also enjoy the work of the entire cast and crew.  It is far from mediocre.

Running time: Two hours and 20 minutes with an intermission.#hocoarts
Advisory: The play contains profanity and is not recommended for children.
Amadeus runs through October 12 at Center Stage, 700 North Calvert St. in Baltimore.  Tickets can be purchased by calling 410-332-0033 or online .

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