BoHo Theatre at Stage 773. By Peter Shaffer. Directed by Peter Marston Sullivan. With Steve O'Connell, Chris Ballou, Amanda Jane Long. 2hrs 30mins; one intermission.
Theater review by Aeneas Sagar Hemphill.
Peter Shaffer's 1979 work brings to life the rivalry between composers Antonio Salieri (Steve O'Connell) and Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (Chris Ballou). Salieri is the Court Composer and the established standard of the day—his compositions are simple, palatable and restrained. Enter Mozart, a young upstart with genius talent and climbing notoriety, and an ability to make music like no one has ever heard (with the exception, according to Mozart, of God himself). Mozart's music brings Salieri to tears, but also awakens a destructive jealousy and obsession that compells him to supress Mozart at every turn. Salieri tells us his story, attempting to convince us that he himself was responsible for Mozart's early death.
BoHo's production, helmed by artistic director Peter Marston Sullivan, may surprise those who have only been exposed to Milos Forman's opulent film adaptation. Shaffer's play feels tighter and more energized. It also embraces its theatricality. Salieri speaks directly to us, making this world entirely his construction, aware of the movement of history. The characters who populate his world are ghosts of his past channeled through his distorted perspective, while we the audience are the ghosts of the future who sit and watch silently in judgement.
In place of the iconic restraint and gravitas that won F. Murray Abraham an Oscar is O'Connell's more unhinged Salieri, bursting with self-conceit and a desperate need for justification. At times all the breath and bluster can overwhelm his character's humanity, but it's a strong and compelling performance, necessary for the character who anchors the play.
Ballou's Mozart is a stand-out. He's wild and goofy, a typhoon-like force, but Ballou keeps him grounded, never crossing into caricature. Every giggle is justified—a nervous tic or a weapon depending on the situation, but never a crutch. It's a nimble performance, and the energy he brings to the production is palpable. This should not take away from what is a decidedly consistent production. It might even be truer to the spirit of the play that in its very performance, Mozart steals our attention despite Salieri's most desperate efforts.