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Stage Reviews: Amadeus, Uncle Vanya

Amadeus: The measured malice of music

Peter Shaffer’s “Amadeus” may be the theater’s most exhilarating depiction of music history, fictionalized or otherwise. Perhaps more importantly, however, it is a depiction of man’s relationships with art, artistic tastes, God, faith and fate.

To lead the audience to such matters, Shaffer poses the question, did composer Antonio Salieri murder his contemporary, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart? The question is apparently not without historic support and has been asked by other playwrights.

The better questions are posed by Salieri once we are past the play’s setup. Why would God give Salieri the desire to praise him, then make him essentially mute? How long would Salieri go unpunished while Mozart dressed in rags?

Since childhood, Salieri prayed he would be a composer and sufficiently famous to enjoy it. In exchange, he promised God he would live a chaste, honorable life. He did not count on having a contemporary the likes of Mozart.

Mozart behaves like a child, full of scatological immaturity, but he is attuned to an eternal pinnacle of perfection, skilled beyond measure in music, and dying, possibly of “poisoning” by Salieri, probably of poverty.

Peter Hall directs the current production of Amadeus at the Ahmanson Theater with aesthetic and practical staging, making visual a relatively cerebral play.

David Suchet portrays Salieri, the actor’s intelligence burning its way to the back rows of the Ahmanson, a singer’s range and power in his speaking voice.

In a miracle of casting, Michael Sheen looks like the Mozart we see in the tiny etchings of the composer as a child. Sheen effervesces with the silly giggle and youthful energy of the character.

Designer William Dudley and lighting designer Paule Constable make exquisite sets and seamless scene changes with floor-to-ceiling transparent backdrops, sometimes reflecting the audience, sometimes showing projected images of Viennese streets or parks. Lighting ranges from mysterious to radiant, costumes are amply detailed.

Not incidentally, Suchet and Sheen are not playing the clavier onstage, but they certainly convince the naked eye and ear otherwise.

“Amadeus” plays through Nov. 28, dark Mondays, at the Ahmanson Theatre at the Los Angeles Music Center. Tel. 213.628.2772 or online at www.TaperAhmanson.com.

Uncle Vanya: Not on the Chekov list

Despite a strong script and skilled actors, this is the perfect example of how disappointing theater can be.

“Uncle Vanya,” in production at the Geffen Playhouse, and co- directed by Michael Langham and Helen Burns, suffers because it leaves little to the imagination of the audience.

Young Sonya is in love with Dr. Astrov. He asks if he might speak with her as they are alone. In this production, the actress playing her looks at the audience and mouths “Oh, my God!” — words not in the script. Because we are human, we can easily imagine Sonya’s heart beating, her mind spinning, without this overt visual aid.

The acting style throughout is “indicated,” the speeches declamatory. From the first entrance, an actor mimes “outdoors” by taking a deep breath and squinting at the sun.

What is not made clear to the audience, however, are the motivations of the characters. Does Dr. Astrov love Sonya’s stepmother or is he manipulating her? Does Sonya blame her stepmother?

Instead of a subtle indication of rain, which the characters are already talking about, we are shown rain pouring down the glass windows. And, in creating the effect of the rain, we see the hose shooting the water from backstage, with the sound of the rain miked.

The blocking is also problematic. Despite a large, unused backstage area visible behind the set, characters enter from the side doors of the theater, taking our focus off the stage.

There are some natural moments of acting. When he first appears, Peter Donat (the professor) is immersed in character — ill and pondering something of great importance to him. Portraying the family matriarch, Anne Gee Byrd, probably because her characterP has so little to do with the story, is given little to do and therefore sits as a place for the mind to rest in the eye of this storm.

The otherwise seasoned cast also includes Gloria Dorson (the nurse), Stephen Pelinski (Dr. Astrov), Robert Foxworth (Vanya), Fred Applegate (the house guest), Megan Follows (Sonya), Christina Haag (Elena) and Michael Rothhaar (the workman).

For their speedy and carefully choreographed set changes, the movers take a deserved bow.

Adapted by Vanessa Burnham, the script includes some modernizations. A word that is sometimes translated as “odd” becomes more 1990s: Astrov says, “The people around here are so weird,” and “I’m turning into a freak.” He hypothesizes about what people would remember 100 years later, asking, “People in 1999, will they have one good word to say for us?”

Well, certainly we do about the writing of the time.

“Uncle Vanya” runs through Oct. 31 at the Geffen Playhouse, 10886 Le Conte Ave., Westwood Village. Tel. 310.208.5454.

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The Malibu Times is the first newspaper in Malibu, serving the community since 1946.

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