Friday, April 29, 2016

Mystery, Memory and Music in Peter Shaffer’s "Amadeus"

by Andy Knight
Asher Grodman, Marco Barricelli and Liesel Allen Yeager in Amadeus.
“Well, the genesis of Amadeus was, I suppose, a long-felt desire to celebrate Mozart in me, but the play actually is not about Mozart, fundamentally. It is about Salieri. It is about the nature of a man’s sense of injustice, and to me the crucial things in the play of Amadeus occur after Mozart’s death, to some extent, when Salieri…finally says to the audience, ‘I was wondering all this time when I would be punished,’ and comes to the conclusion that his punishment lay—because he survived Mozart by 30 years and was a huge success in Vienna, gigantic success, much more successful on the level of acclaim than Mozart—when he spent thirty years being called distinguished by people incapable of distinguishing.”
—Playwright Peter Shaffer
In 1823, the year that Peter Shaffer’s Amadeus begins, Antonio Salieri, at one time Vienna’s most celebrated composer, is past his prime. Now 73 years old, Salieri has lived long enough to see his music fall out of fashion and his influence in the Viennese court dwindle, as his role as the royal music director fades from a position of power to a mere title of respect. What’s more, the buzz around Vienna—“the city of Slander”—is that Salieri has gone mad: after all, the reclusive Italian won’t stop raving that he killed Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, the revered Austrian composer who died thirty years earlier. “I don’t believe it,” the gossips say. “All the same… Is it just possible? Did he do it after all?”

Only Salieri knows the truth, and as he waits for death, he begs the ghosts of the distant future—his audience—to hear his story, to know his truth once and for all. For their benefit, he revisits the past. “The year—to begin with—seventeen eighty-one,” says Salieri as he sets the scene. “The age still that of the Enlightenment: that clear time before the guillotine fell in France and cut all of our lives in half.”

At 31, Salieri holds the illustrious position of chamber composer in the Viennese court of Joseph II and is the model of success: his operas are loved in both Vienna and across Europe, his musical taste is exquisite and his skill at court politics is undeniable. But the pious Salieri knows that success doesn’t come for free; he believes that God bestows His gifts on only the most righteous, the most deserving. The composer, therefore, commits himself to serving God through music and to leading a virtuous life as a show of gratitude.

But then Salieri meets Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, wunderkind composer and enfant terrible. Mozart is gaudy, bawdy and petulant—but a remarkable talent. It’s not long before Salieri recognizes his own music is, at best, adequate next to Mozart’s—amusing trifles in the shadows of great works of art—and he’s consumed by jealousy. How could a just God give so much to someone so small? And how could the Almighty withhold the same kind of talent from Salieri, his greatest attendant? As Salieri’s envy grows, he wages a war against God, and Mozart is the battleground. “What use, after all, is Man,” Salieri points out, “if not to teach God His lessons?”

Portrait of Salieri by Joseph Willibrord (circa 1814).
Portrait of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart by an unknown artist (circa 1788–90).
In Amadeus, Peter Shaffer, author of Equus and Lettice and Lovage, brings his story of jealousy and revenge to life using a technique in which the present and past (in Amadeus’ case 1823 and 1781-91, respectively) exist at the same time. On what he believes is his last night alive, Salieri conjures up the past and both participates within it and comments upon it (from the vantage point of the present). Time and location change frequently, but there is no interruption, no breaks between scenes; instead, the audience is ushered from event to event by Salieri, with a fluidity that allows the sweeping story to pick up momentum as its suspense grows.

But Shaffer also complements Amadeus’ storytelling with musical elements—not just with the play's use of music in the literal sense, but also with its nods to operatic forms. For example, Amadeus begins when “savage whispers fill the theatre” chanting “Salieri.” This chorus is quickly replaced by the Venticelli, two “little winds,” or gossips, who tell the audience about Salieri’s confession of murder. The sequence functions much like an introductory movement—or overture—to the play. Beyond that, one might describe Salieri’s monologues as the play’s arias; or discover that the word games between Mozart and his wife Constanze contain the rhyming patterns of song lyrics; or even find motifs from Mozart’s operas, like blackmail (The Abduction from the Seraglio) or destructive fathers (Don Giovanni), dropped into Amadeus.

“While it’s not a musical, it functions like one,” says director Kent Nicholson, who returns to SCR after directing the 2014 production of The Light in the Piazza. But it’s not only the musicality and epic scope that draw him to the piece: “I think people will be surprised how funny Amadeus is…I think that to make people have a profound experience, they have to laugh first.”

To bring Amadeus to life, Nicholson has assembled a creative team of SCR favorites. The design team includes set designer John Iacovelli, whose many SCR credits include this season’s production of Abundance; costume designer Alex Jaeger, who recently designed costumes for the world premiere of Office Hour at SCR; lighting designer Lap Chi Chu, who designed this season’s world premiere of Future Thinking; and sound designer Darron L West, who designed last season’s world premiere of Of Good Stock.

The cast of Amadeus includes SCR veterans, as well as newcomers. Marco Barricelli, whose successful career includes roles on Broadway and at the top regional theatres across the country, returns to SCR after last appearing in the theatre’s 1996 production of The Taming of the Shrew. Asher Grodman makes his SCR debut as Mozart. The cast is rounded out by Christian Barillas, Mark Capri, Peter Frechette, John-David Keller, Louis Lotorto, Louis Pardo, A.J. Sclafani, Camille Thornton Alson and Geoffrey Wade, all of whom have appeared in previous SCR productions, as well as Bo Foxworth, Cynthia Marty and Liesel Allen Yeager, who are making their SCR debut.

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Thursday, April 28, 2016

Meet the Author: George MacDonald

George MacDonald with son Ronald (right) and daughter Mary (left) in 1864. Photograph by Lewis Carroll.
MacDonald in the 1860s
The stage play The Light Princess is adapted from a fairy tale that Scottish author, George MacDonald, originally published in 1864.

George MacDonald was born in 1824 in Aberdeenshire, Scotland. As a boy, he loved boxing and reading. He eventually learned to read in Dutch, English, French, German, Greek, Italian, Latin and Spanish. After graduating from university, MacDonald moved to London, where he studied theology. When his career as a preacher proved unsuccessful, he tried his hand at writing. His extensive knowledge of language and culture played an important role in his ability to paint vivid, memorable pictures in his books. Some years later, poet W.H. Auden wrote: “In his power to project his inner life into images, beings, landscapes which are valid for all, he is one of the most remarkable writers of the nineteenth century.”

MacDonald published more than 50 books over the course of four decades. While he wrote fiction, nonfiction, and poetry, he is best remembered for his fantasy and fairy tales. “I write, not for children,” he wrote, “but for the child-like, whether they be of five, or fifty, or seventy-five.” The story “The Light Princess” was originally published as part of a longer novel, Adela Cathcart, in 1864. Some of his other best known works include Phantases (1858), At the Back of the North Wind (1871), The Princess and the Goblin (1872) and The Princess and Curdie (1883).

MacDonald served as a mentor to Lewis Carroll, and encouraged him to publish Alice in Wonderland. His writings also had a substantial influence on several major 20th century fantasy authors, including C.S. Lewis (The Chronicles of Narnia), J.R.R. Tolkien (The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings), and Madeleine L’Engle (A Wrinkle in Time). MacDonald spend the last two decades of his life living in Italy with his wife. He died in 1905, at the age of 80.

Adapted from George MacDonald: Life, Works, Legacy by Matthew Bracey

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Summer Players to Present A Tale as Old as Time

Director Hisa Takakuwa and Musical Director Erin McNally prepare for Beauty and the Beast auditions.
Auditions are now underway for SCR’s next Summer Players show (August 6-14), and it’s a doozy. After much consideration, Director Hisa Takakuwa and Musical Director Erin McNally have chosen the two-time Broadway hit based on an ancient fairy tale, Beauty and the Beast.

According to Hisa, “We’re doing this show because Erin loves it!”

And that’s certainly true. “I always have identified with this show because the female protagonist is strong and smart,” Erin said, “and because it reminds us that being unique or ‘different’ isn’t a bad thing.”

Hisa is a big fan, too. “Beauty and the Beast has great characters and music to explore,” she said, “which makes it perfect for our Players. Because of the fantasy realm, we have a lot of flexibility with casting choices in terms of age and gender.”

Both agree that it’s a show that’s fun for the Players to perform and for the audience to watch. “ It’s very important that the story resonates with our young cast members and can be told from their point of view,” Hisa added. “One thing that helped convince me was that Beauty and the Beast deals with the power everyone has to change and grow and learn from every situation, good or—at least on first view—bad.”

The New York Times said of the Broadway version of Beauty and the Beast (which is the one Hisa and Erin have chosen) that it “belongs right up there with the Empire State Building.”

“And we agree!” the directors declared.

Wednesday, April 27, 2016

"A Midsummer Night’s Dream" Next Up for Teen Players

The Bard’s Most Popular Comedy is a First for the Ensemble
L to R- Amanda Fassett, Mikey Costa, Alex Theologides Rodriguez, Saul Richardson, Joshua Myran and Kat Lewis in SCR's Teen Players production of A Midsummer Night's Dream.
Within SCR’s Theatre Conservatory are three groups of young actors chosen by audition—the Junior, Teen and Summer Players. Every year these ensembles of talented young actors astound audiences with their performances in shows that challenge them to take what they have learned in class and apply it to their roles.

They’ve performed in classics (Teen Players, Charles Dickens’ Hard Times), Broadway musicals (Summer Players, Sondheim’s Into the Woods) and be loved children’s stories (Junior Players, The Velveteen Rabbit).

But never Shakespeare.

Until now. William Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream (Nicholas Studio, May 14-15 and 20-22) will be the Teen Players first-ever production of a work by the Bard.

“There’s no real reason for that,” says Theatre Conservatory Director Hisa Takakuwa. “Clearly, I’ve chosen challenging plays for them in the past, and it’s not like I’ve avoided Shakespeare…”

And why would she? Takakuwa is a classically trained actor and longtime member of the classic theatre company A Noise Within, where she appeared in numerous Shakespearian roles such as Maria in Twelfth Night. Her other roles include Lady Capulet in Romeo and Juliet at Indiana Repertory Theatre and Hero in Much Ado About Nothing at Grove Shakespeare Festival.

“I think, looking back, with each new season and each new group of ensemble Players, there has been a play that suits them well,” she says. This year, it’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream."

“Because our Players are vibrant young people, we’ll see the play from their point of view,” she explains, “which is naturally fresh and youthful. This will be an honest, straight-forward production.”

But it is Shakespeare, after all, and that calls for extensive preparation. “These Players are very committed to their work—or they wouldn’t be here,” Takakuwa says, noting that the cast is made up of the most enthusiastic and talented Conservatory students, but they don’t audition for the Players ensembles unless they are prepared to devote themselves to long hours of rehearsal—and that’s in addition to twice-weekly classes during the school year.

Takakuwa started rehearsals for A Midsummer Night’s Dream with the actors seated at a long table, reading the script—for three weeks. She says, “I wanted them to understand the poetry within the text before setting foot onstage. At the end of the table read, they needed to be comfortable with their characters.”

She concentrated on the three major themes in the comedy: love, transformation and dream/reality. “It’s all about how people change,” she relates. “The Teen Players are going through their own changes. They’re all in high school now, and two of them are off to college in the fall. In a sense, they’re on the way into their own forests.”

But first, they have a stop in the forest of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, where four young lovers flee into the woods on a summer evening—and where strange and wonderful things are about to happen.

Learn more and buy tickets.

Tuesday, April 26, 2016

Casting Call: Taking on Salieri and Mozart

Actors Talk About Taking on Iconic Roles in Amadeus

Marco Barricelli as Salieri and Asher Grodman as Mozart in Amadeus.

Marco Barricelli
Asher Grodman
Asher Grodman starts the conversation with a secret: for years, he has wanted to work with actor Marco Barricelli. Both are cast in Sir Peter Shaffer’s Amadeus (Segerstrom Stage, May 6-June 5, 2016)—Barricelli as Antonio Salieri and Grodman as Mozart.

“This is a dream come true for me,” says Grodman. “Marco is amazing because of both the ease and power that he works with.”

As for a revelation from Barricelli, read on to find out about that and more as the actors talk about taking on the iconic roles in Sir Peter Shaffer’s award-winning play.

On what drew them to the play

Barricelli: I had never considered playing Salieri until SCR offered it to me. But I had seen the original Broadway production a dozen or so times, with Sir Ian McKellen as Salieri, Tim Curry at Mozart and Jane Seymour as Constanze. It is a great play—and we all want to do “great” plays, right? The role of Salieri also is one of those unscalable mountains: one can never satisfactorily scale it; it is the attempt that is all important. I also enjoy hearing all of the glorious music.

Grodman: The play is brilliant and the role of Mozart is like a playground for any actor. He's like a rubber ball being thrown against a jagged wall: You don't know where it's going, but you know it's going there fast! He's filled with contradictions—he's genius, child-like nature, rebellion and desperate need for approval.

On what’s challenging and fun about their characters

Barricelli: The truth is that I am not a person who likes sweets, but Salieri does and he uses sweets as his substitute for sex, at least to begin with. I think the most challenging thing for me has been the stamina it takes to get through the whole performance; it’s a long play and Salieri never leaves the stage.

I used to think that acting was being unrecognizable on stage; now I know it to be revealing who and what you are. If you can honestly reveal yourself, then it has some truth, and truth allows you and the audience to believe. That’s our job: we make belief—we “make believe.”

Grodman: The play, the cast and the director ar the best things about coming to work each day. In terms of my own work, the most challenging and the most fun have been working with the breadth of the story and and navigating the twists and turns. So much happens: Mozart goes through numerous life-altering moments and responds to them in big ways, but they go by quickly (in the blink of an eye). In addition, the dynamics of the relationships are constantly shifting throughout the play, often because Mozart is so impulsive.It's a bit of an obstacle course for an actor, that that's a lot of fun! I also love the moments when Mozart gets the approval he so desperately needs and when he watches his own work come to life. For me, that's a wonderful feeling.

Characters inspired by actual people

Barricelli: Frankly, as Shakespeare says, “the play’s the thing.” I’m not on stage to perform historical research; I’m performing Mr. Shaffer’s play. It may be interesting to learn some things about the real Salieri, but at the end of the day, we are doing the playwright’s image of Salieri.

Grodman: The play isn't the history, but because there are so many resources out there—like Mozart's music and his letters—I feel that there's a lot of fuel to broaden my own imaginative landscape. I've found that those resources have helped me fall in love with the man.

My favorite line in the play—”My tongue is stupid. My heart isn't.”—is him in a nutshell. He doesn’t know how to communicate, but he knows when he has something that is worthy to say through music; it is pure and it comes from his heart.

If you could share a meal with Mozart or Shaffer

Barricelli: Oh, I’d be too intimidated to have any sort of intelligent conversation!

Grodman: I don't think I'd be invited, but I wonder if Mozart—at least Mozart as he appears in Amadeus—would tease Shaffer for needing five drafts for his play!

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