By Peter Shaffer
Directed by Mark Richard
Presented by Oak Park Festival Theatre
Playing in Austin Gardens in Oak Park
A humdrum production in the park, as stirring as a cool breeze…
Anyone considering a trip out to Oak Park Festival Theatre’s production of Amadeus— English playwright Peter Shaffer’s 1979 black comedy—should know that the grass in Austin Gardens is especially cool on one’s bare feet. And that the birds chirp away well into the early hours of the evening there. And that one should bring an umbrella in the event of inclement weather or bug spray in case of mosquito infestation (there were a few the night I went). But as for Amadeus itself, I’m afraid this production has about as much dramatic momentum as a temperate June breeze, lumbering along with lackluster production design and perfunctory characterizations.
For what outdoor performances usually gain in an excursive sense of pastoral retreat is here a loss. Shaffer’s burlesque opera—which presents a highly fictionalized account of Italian composer Antonio Salieri’s murderous rivalry with musical genius and child prodigy, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart—feels oddly displaced among the picturesque oak trees and bare night sky of Austin Gardens. Missing is the much-needed ornate splendor of the Rococo, with Joe Schermoly’s economical set designs clashing against the rustic backdrop of Oak Park’s wood-erected stage. Lamé curtains hung from the back and some dreadfully tacky golden chairs do little to suggest the material indulgences of 18th-century Vienna, and in fact, only remind us—like teasing desert oases—how barren the stage actually looks.
Moreover, Salieri’s descent from the self-assured toast of eighteenth-century Vienna to envious cur—forswearing God for his own lack of comparable musical talent and vowing to forcibly undermine the musical career of His chosen vessel, Mozart—unfolds with an uninspired ham-handedness, despite an otherwise charming performance from Kevin Theis. But Theis looks to be working double time here, grandstanding like the solicitor at a carnival sideshow, always trying to entice the audience with something likable to invest themselves in. Unfortunately, much of the supporting cast (with the exception of a quirky Jonathan Nicols as Emperor Joseph II) otherewise appears to be sleepwalking, moving with little purpose from one mark to the next in Richard’s conspicuously presentational and flattened staging.
And Chris Daley’s turn as Mozart sadly comes across as little more than an infantilized idiot savant, fidgeting when he means to be excitable, braying when he means to be inspired, and socially awkward when he means to be seditious. And there’s so little chemistry between Daley and Meg Warner, playing Mozart’s neglected and desperate wife, Constanze, that Salieri’s lecherous efforts to ruin Mozart by seducing her does little to incite the necessary disapproval. In fact, Theis’s Salieri being as alluring as he is here has the effect of pitting us against the juvenile Mozart, consequently throwing off much of the play’s emotional center.
Thus Salieri, the self-declared “Patron Saint of Mediocrities,” regrettably finds himself too much at home in this production. Bringing little that is new or revelatory to Shaffer’s intense psychodrama, it feels too often as though it were merely going through the motions. In fact, one almost hoped for a summer storm to come along. If only to at least breathe a little life on stage.
Reviewed by Anthony J. Mangini
Reviewed Saturday, June 18th, 2013.
Running time is approximately 2 hours and 15 minutes with one intermission.
Amadeus runs until July 13th, 2013. Austin Gardens is located at 167 Forest Avenue in Oak Park. For tickets call (708) 445-4440 or visit https://oakparkfestival.com/. Check out their Theater in Chicago listing at https://www.theatreinchicago.com/amadeus/6401/.