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You almost feel sorry for Antonio Salieri in the closing moments of “Amadeus,” the exquisitely staged period drama that’s running through June 10 at Ann Arbor’s Performance Network Theatre.
It’s not that slowly and gleefully squeezing the life out of a hated rival for most of your adult life is a virtue that deserves our sympathy. Nor is it that he came out the loser in a very long and bitter battle of the wits with God.
Rather, it’s the superb performance of Malcolm Tulip – and the deep layers of humanity he so thoroughly explores in the character – that tugs at our heartstrings. And that’s not easy to do, given the well-crafted script Peter Shaffer wrote about the 18th century rivalry between Salieri and the musical genius Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart.
Shaffer based his story on a long-believed rumor that a bitter Salieri poisoned Mozart over the latter’s musical genius. “Why confess after 32 years,” a weary Salieri asks the audience, his invited guests, on the supposed last day of his life. Although modern-day experts give no credence to the gossip, Shaffer and Salieri paint a vivid picture of a man who loses his morality when a teenage pact with God goes awry. “Let me be a composer,” the youngster asks his Creator. If his wish is granted, Salieri promises to live a life of virtue and write beautiful music in His honor. And if a little fame comes his way, all the better!
Both parties honor the covenant once Salieri arrives in Vienna where he eventually rises to the prestigious position of imperial Kapellmeister in the court of Emperor Joseph II. It begins to crumble, however, when the rude and crude Mozart arrives in town. And recognizing his competition’s God-given superior talents, Salieri declares war on his maker – with Mozart caught in the middle.
As written by Shaffer, it is easy to see why some actors portray Salieri as a cranky and despicable man with few redeeming qualities. In director/actor Tulip’s care, however, Salieri becomes a passionate human being whose hubris and ego drive him down an evil path after God seemingly breaks their agreement. It’s a carefully constructed, multi-faceted portrayal that allows us to see the character’s goodness as well as his flaws. And by play’s end, Tulip makes it quite clear that even Salieri has come to understand the cosmic joke God has played on him. It’s an exceptional performance – and Tulip has set the standard upon which other local actors will be judged when playing the role in the future.
Also engaging is Chris Korte, who seems to relish toying with the contradictory aspects of Mozart’s personality. From offensive boor to musical genius, Korte nails the character’s eccentricities – especially in the first act where his performance is especially slick and well controlled.
Because this tale is focused primarily on the rivalry between Salieri and Mozart, the drama’s many other characters simply come and go as the plot requires. Loren Bass, with few lines but much stage presence, is especially notable as Joseph II, while Aphrodite Nikolovski gives yet another strong performance as Mozart’s wife, Costanze. And each of the other major supporting actors has a brief moment to shine, as well.
Also contributing greatly to the show’s success is Monika Essen who beautifully costumed the production’s 17 actors and designed its unique set. The moody lighting by Andrew Hungerford often helps set the tone, but eerie shadows occasionally leave the actors’ faces a little too much in the dark.
(FOR “REVIEW BOX”)
Performance Network Theatre, 120 E. Huron, Ann Arbor. Thu.-Sun., through June 10. Tickets: $25-$37. For information: 734-663-0696 or http://www.performancenetwork.org