Wednesday, 11 March 2015

Mozart & Salieri = whimsy, genius & pure delight

Backstory to the show : Most people who think of the Mozart and Salieri story immediately conjure the Peter Shaffer script Amadeus, taken from Mozart's middle name that means, in Latin, "loved by God". The 1984 movie directed by Milos Forman was a runaway success : it garnered eight Academies. Well, Mr. Shaffer, move over. Vancouver's Seven Tyrants Theatre group is without doubt the new champion storyteller of this tale.

Neither Shaffer nor 7TT creators David Newham and Daniel Deorksen came up with this potboiler of a plot on their own, of course. Stage folk are all well aware of the original 1830 mini-play (two scenes, seven pages of dialogue) by Alexander Pushkin and the 1897 opera by Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov based on it. It's how 7TT treats the material that's so different.

The story is simple : chief operatic composer to the Viennese court in the late 1700's, Antonio Salieri -- at least how the myths would have it -- was utterly jealous of the genius of his younger contemporary Mozart. He figured the only way his own musical masterstrokes would ever survive would be if Mozart were killed off in his prime. And how better but by beguiling him with a freebie dinner and drink, and then poisoning his wine.

Talk about an operatic storyline : it is reported Salieri was not exonerated of the "poison plot" allegation until an Italian court did so, officially, in 1997, fully 206 years after Mozart wrote his last note. (Meanwhile death by rheumatic fever seems to be the most infectious theory to-day.)

No question Shaffer's play and subsequent movie were sumptuous -- less kindly critics have called them "bloated". In the hands of Messrs. Newham and Deorksen, by contrast, the story of these two music men is whimsical, imaginatively rich, and short. They do better in 75 minutes what Shaffer's celluloid version required some three hours to view.

The fun of 7TT's version : In a manner similar to their loudly applauded Beggar's Opera production of 2014, Newham and Deorksen have structured this year's 3-hander to be a show "celebrating absurdity" in Deorksen's words. There are five "Fantasias" that roll out chunks of the Pushkin play.

In each Fantasia, the show's stars perform snitches and slabs of both Wolfie's creations and those of Salieri. Mozart (Masae Day) does turns on violin and piano with equal theatric finesse, while Salieri (David Whiteley) performs just as well on the viola -- symbolically as well as factually "second fiddle" to Mozart.

But stitching their stories together and encircling them with joyous abandon is a character called The Player (Cate Richardson) whose soprano chops give us the show's narrator. Dressed as a hottie harlequin in nylons and garters and peacock wings, The Player intro's each Fantasia with some story exposition and lyric funnin', telling the audience from the start that "this is a twisted version of the tale you think you know".

As the story unfolds : Salieri refers to himself as a "craftsman" who labours away grindingly in Mozart's spontaneous shadow. He laments : "I was content, at peace, I took quiet pride in my work." By contrast he says Mozart is "some celestial cherub who came to bring us several tunes from Heaven".

Along the way there's a delicious tavern interlude where Wolfie and The Player join forces in a rubadub pick-up rendition of The Turkish March. That Mozart plays a squeezebox pretty well sums up this goofy and charming bit of cabaret. Their silliness only infuriates Salieri, however. "You are unworthy of yourself!" he exclaims, and what follows is a sardonic soliloquy reminiscent of the chant "This Jesus this Jesus this Jesus must die!" from Superstar. He is consumed by his "destiny". He crescendo's his jealousy and proceeds to kill off his nemesis all the while professing brotherly love and admiration. Does so while Mozart plays for him his final creation, appropriately, the Requiem in D minor.

Production values galore : Any criticism of this wonderful piece of theatre would be to pick at very small nits indeed. I shan't bother. I can only exult at its creative imagination. In musical director Deorksen's notes he states "I found powerful justification to twist and turn the sanctified classical compositions however we needed." Snatches of Muppet-y music from Sesame Street, gospel strains from N'Awlins, and shoo-be-do-be-do early rock tunes punctuate the original score in ways that made me grin with joy.

As for characterizations, in production director Newham's words "I wanted the focus of the play put on our shared modern experience of Mozart's image, his legend and, of course, his music...Therefore I wanted the audience to see Mozart as Salieri sees Mozart : as a child, a genius, and a monster."

While Richardson as The Player had the most pronounced role given her wild costumes and singing prowess, Day as Mozart was engaging and endearing and a giggly treat. As Salieri, Whiteley brought the appropriate gloom and high dudgeon to his part, at times seeming to channel Steven van Zandt of Soprano's fame.

Three other aspects of the show need mention however. Costume designer Ines Ortner was positively inspired in her outfitting of each of the characters. The Mozart and Salieri capes and wigs and leggings were spot on. And speaking of spots. David Newham's lighting design with its red and green and blue and yellow backlit scrim, its Aurora Borealis moments and the individual spots (and dark lights) on each player were utterly right each moment of the show. Choreographer Catherine Burnett executed her challenge marvelously. From the Chaplinesque stealth of Wolfie sneaking to his grand piano to the pixie prances of all three to The Player's struts offset by 5th position poses, the blocking and stage business were sheer fun to watch.

Who gonna like : If you don't like classical music; if you don't know anything whatever about Mozart; if Salieri is a name utterly foreign to you. Well, you could still derive some pleasure out of this for all the production values noted above. But some "likes" and knowledge in the preceding categories would help. As well as having seen Amadeus along the way just to know what all the kerfuffle about these two guys is all about. 

For those who have some grounding in these areas, well, I really can't say quite enough. This is intimate small theatre entertainment of the most creative and exciting kind. For Vancouverites who like to kvetch that the local scene is too mainstream for them, this is must see! entertainment. A more engaging night of sheer originality and punch and fun I can't quite imagine.

Particulars : Produced by Seven Tyrants Theatre.  Created by Daniel Deorksen and David Newham.  Adapted by David Newham from Alexander Pushkin's classic play as translated by Genia Gurarie.  Musical score by Daniel Deorksen inspired by the works of Wolfgang [Amadeus] Mozart and Antonio Salieri. At the Jericho Arts Centre until March 14. Run-time 75 minutes, no intermission. Phone 1.877.840.0457 for schedules and tickets.

Production crew : Director David Newham.  Music Director Daniel Deorksen.  Assistant Music Director Phyllis Ho.  Choreographer Catherine Burnett.  Costume Designer Ines Ortner. Stage Manager Susan Currie.  Assistant Stage Manager Sandra Yee.  Lighting Designer David Newham.  Seamstress Joanne Raymont.  Publicist Marnie Wilson. Box Office Manager Linden Banks. 

Performers : Masae Day. Cate Richardson. David Whiteley.


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