First, a confession — I'm a fan of Antonio Salieri. Not of his music (although he was talented enough to become Vienna's Imperial Royal Kappelmeister) but of the man. Like Othello's Iago, Salieri embodies all the petty, human jealousies and longings that so many of us harbor. Or at least he does in playwright Peter Shaffer's 1980 play Amadeus. And as an aficionado of the sympathetic bastard, I wasn't disappointed by Footlight's production, which opened last weekend.
As with all great villains, Salieri (played here by Mark Mixson) has his compassionate side. He's a pious, capricious composer who does good deeds for his fellow musicians and has pledged allegiance to God in return for some musical inspiration and "sufficient fame to enjoy it." He's devout enough to keep his hands off his protégé Katherina (Brandi Boone), and he tends to the limited musical needs of ruling monarch Joseph II (Kevin Curler).
Then along comes former child star Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (Henry Riggs), who's way ahead of his time. Not only does he compose complex operas with insufferable ease, but he also acts like a big child. These days, immaturity is tolerated, if not encouraged, in 20-somethings, but back in 1781 it didn't go down so well.
The battle lines are drawn early on in this play. Salieri and Count Rosenberg (E. Karl Bunch) share Italian chittero-chattero, parrying Mozart's attempts to curry Joseph's favor. Baron van Swieten (Scott Cason) and Count von Strack (Bob Sharbaugh) realize that Mozart is proficient, but they don't care for his childish antics. Salieri alone appreciates the pipsqueak's music for what it really is — exquisite.
It isn't fair that the foul-mouthed Austrian should possess such a gift, which Salieri views as a direct hotline to God. So the irate Italian makes his own call to the Lord, vowing to destroy his rival.
Mixson does his best work when he's speaking to God or describing the passion in Mozart's music. There's a heavy load on the actor's shoulders — he's the narrator, antagonist, and instigator of events all rolled into one. He does a great job in what at times is almost a solo show, holding the audience's attention throughout. He trips over a few lines and occasionally he's too quiet, but perhaps it's fitting that his words are overwhelmed by Mozart's notes.
This is a well-cast show, with the actors contrasting with each other through their voices and expressions. For example, as Joseph's three courtiers, Cason has low, booming tones; Bunch is higher-pitched and wheedling; while the calm, collected Sharbaugh balances the two.
Henry Riggs plays Mozart as a cheeky, immature genius. With a penchant for toilet humor and an occasional, crowd-pleasing cackle, he creates an innocent, well-rounded character. He only struggles with a couple of tough transitions from comic to serious moments that are a pitfall of the play's rapid pace. Jelena Zerega complements him perfectly as Mrs. Mozart, Frau Constanze Weber, and the capable Cat Cook and Adam McLean provide vox pops as a pair of Venticelli.
The audience enjoys the promiscuous prodigy's tomfoolery almost as much as Salieri's machinations. Like a mischievous playwright, the Italian manipulates the characters around him, determined to beat his opponent, God. His careful maneuvering is reflected in the blocking, with a raked stage section and steps positioning characters at different heights depending on their hierarchy or mind state. The play's visual elements captivate without engulfing the actors, using extravagant costumes and effective lighting to create an operatic ambience.
The set is deceptively simple, with golden trimmings and a very grand piano showing off the opulence of Joseph's court and Salieri's house. Wobbly back-projected images help to set each scene. Toward the end, audience members are required to use their imagination, as the squalor of Mozart's own home is described but not shown — a device perhaps more in keeping with director Rodney Lee Rogers' minimalist PURE Theatre productions.
Rogers' assured handling of this play highlights its serious, soul-searching elements, but there's also plenty of comedy — if you were a guy strutting around in a wig, pink coat, and stockings, you'd need a sense of humor too.
All the world is noting Mozart's 250th birthday this month. Celebrate it yourself by seeing this prime piece of community theatre, and spare a tear for Antonio Salieri, patron saint of the average Joe.
On Feb. 7 at 7:30 p.m., Footlight Players Theatre will host a one-off performance by the Chamber Music Society of Charleston titled The Magic & Music of Mozart for Austria's favorite birthday boy. Tickets are $25.
(Not that it's a big deal, but in the spirit of full disclosure: actor Bob Sharbaugh is Arts Editor Patrick Sharbaugh's father.)