Pinch-hitter hits home run in ‘Amadeus’


Ben Evett as Salieri, center, and the cast of "Amadeus." Andrew Billiant/Brilliant Pictures

Ben Evett as Salieri, center, and the cast of “Amadeus.” Andrew Billiant/Brilliant Pictures

WATERTOWN — Theater is a lot like baseball. If you give a great actor a pitch in his wheelhouse, you expect him to hit it out of the park.
Even if that actor is a pinch-hitter. Thomas Derrah was originally cast as composer Antonio Salieri in the New Repertory Theatre’s production of Peter Shaffer‘s “Amadeus,” now at the Mosesian Theatre at the Arsenal Center for the Arts through May 19.
But a scheduling conflict forced Derrah to pull out, and Benjamin Evett took over as Salieri. Evett, the artistic director of the Actors’ Shakespeare Project, leads an excellent ensemble cast, in full command throughout in a theatrical tour de force as a man who, according to Shaffer, spent much of his life cursing in the darkness, in a jealous rage at the genius that was Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (Tim Spears) .
Based on Shaffer’s highly-fictionalized version of events — which itself is based at least in part on Alexander Pushkin’s play Mozart i Salieri — as “Amadeus” opens, an aged Salieri is in his last hours on earth and looking back, convinced that he has poisoned Mozart and caused his death at the age of 35.
“I do not seek forgiveness,” he tells us in his delusion, but feels a need to explain himself and what drove him to such a deed.
And so he takes us back to Vienna in 1783, when word of Mozart coming to the city has reached Salieri, and the court of Austrian Emperor Joseph II (Russell Garrett). Salieri is unimpressed after meeting Mozart the person at a salon, but is fully aware that Mozart’s talents will soon overshadow his own.
Garrett’s Joseph is vacuous and malleable — his favorite saying is, “well, there it is” as the solution to all problems — and he is endlessly and easily manipulated by Salieri, denying Mozart both the resources he needs to live and support his family and the recognition for his work he craves
It becomes apparent that Salieri is at war not so much with Mozart, but with God, for bestowing such incredible talent on someone as undeserving as Mozart, while Salieri, a lifelong devout Catholic, does not have the talent to praise God properly with his music.
Salieri reneges on a deal he makes with Mozart’s wife Costanze Weber (McCaela Donovan) to recommend Mozarrt for a post in the emporer’s court in exchange for sexual favors
It is the first of many deceits and lies for Salieri , pretending to support Mozart while in his company, and then scheming behind his back to have others turn against him, including his fellow Freemasons. Researches have debunked much of the deceit and sexual intrigue that Shaffer has put forth, but it does make for good entertainment.
Shaffer’s Mozart is all over the place, immature and childish at times — he was known to have a love for scatological humor, according to researchers — but also a devoted husband and father, and a driven student of music and an artist who was amazingly prolific, even in the last years of his life as his health declined..
There are some wonderful supporting performances: Gifted comic actor Paul Farwell has a funny turn as Johan Kilian von Strack; Jeffries Thaiss is fine as Count Orsini-Rosenberg, as are Michael Kaye and Paula Langton as the “Venticelli,” part gossips, part Greek chorus, who interact with Salieri.
Amadeus is great to look at and listen to, and the productions values are superb, from Christina Todesco’s set, Frances Nelson McSharry’s sumptuous costumes, and David Remedios’ sound that keeps both dialogue and music perfectly balanced.
Director Jim Petosa keeps things moving along at a brisk pace, and while the production clocks in at just under three hours, it is an evening of theater during which you won’t notice — or care — about the length of performance.
In the end, Shaffer shows us how Salieri’s pride and jealously have consumed not only Mozart, but Salieri as well.
And as Salieri fades away at the end he knows that Mozart’s genius has been revealed to all, and Salieri will forever be what he admits he was: the “master of mediocrity.”
“If I can’t be Mozart,” pronounces Evett/Salieri, “I don’t wish to be anything.”
The New Repertory Theatre production of Peter Shaffer’s “Amadeus.” Directed by Jim Petosa. At The Mosesian Theatre at the Arsenal Center for the Arts through May 19.