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Mozart through the mind of Salieri

“Salieri is a great villain.”

So suggests actor Richard Pallaziol, describing the 19th Century Italian composer - and rumored poisoner of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart.

“Unlike Shakespearean villains,” he says, “who always eventually recognize their villainy, Salieri believes that he is the aggrieved party. He’s not the villain. He thinks he’s the victim.”

Pallaziol is currently playing Salieri in Cinnabar Theater’s production of Peter Shaffer’s acclaimed stage play “Amadeus,” best known for its Oscar-winning 1984 film adaptation starring Tom Hulce and F. Murray Abraham. A heavily fictionalized account of historical events, “Amadeus” takes place in the mind of Salieri, who frequently addresses the audience face-to-face, as he recounts, describes, and defends his increasingly antagonistic relationship with the brilliant Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, whose early death Salieri just might have hastened.

“This Salieri,” continues Pallaziol (who says he loves getting to address the audience directly in this play), “does believe that he is completely and totally right, that his actions are fully justified. That makes it so much easier to deal with, as an actor. It’s just nice for me to know that, no matter what awful things I do on stage, I am basically right.”

Directed by Jennifer King (last year’s “The Odd Couple”), the Cinnabar production also features Aaron Wilton as Mozart, with a supporting cast that includes Rose Roberts as Mozart’s wife Costanza, Chad Yarish as Emperor Joseph II, Tim Setzer as Count Johann Killian von Strack, James Pelican as Count Franz Orsini-Rosenberg, plus David Foushee, Kyle Stoner, and Sophia Ferar.

The celebrated play opens this weekend, and runs through April 15.

During a recent rehearsal, Pallaziol, Wilton and King are taking a break to sit down and describe their approach, as veteran theater artists, to one of the most powerful stage dramas of the 20th century. Directly in front of them is a simple, stripped-down set, with a large, wooden effigy of a piano hovering above the stage, an indication of the power and pull of music literally hanging over the characters’ heads.

“Jennifer’s approach, stylistically, is to keep the action clearly within Salieri’s mind,” explains Wilton, who says he’s avoided re-watching the movie so as not to have his interpretation of Mozart unduly influenced by Hulce’s indelible performance. “In our version, the facts and the memories and the scenes and the stories are all floating around in Salieri’s head space, which frees up a lot of us to become perceived versions of characters, rather than fight for some historical accuracy in our representation.”

Indeed, suggests King, this production takes special advantage of the poetry of the play. Shaffer’s actor-loving words don’t concern themselves so much with historical truths as much as they explore the ways art and music bring profound spiritual calm and mental comfort, while also (occasionally) driving that music’s creators to the very brink of madness.

“Both Mozart and Salieri experience mental breakdowns, of different kinds, and in this production, we get to see that,” says King. “This isn’t melodrama. It’s not over-the-top, like some productions of “Amadeus” have been. It deals with dramatic complexities in a really powerful and beautiful way.”

Asked what motivates these characters to such extreme behavior, the actors muse a moment before Wilton answers first.

“Well,” he says, “I hate to apply a contemporary term, but I think Mozart was probably bipolar, to some degree. He has major highs and incredible lows, and he fluctuates between the two. That’s the approach I’m taking, that he was the product of a very difficult upbringing, and that his mental state has been somewhat torn apart. That’s more interesting to me than the easy labels of ‘arrogant’ or ‘pompous’ or ‘A-hole’ or whatever. I’m trying to be psychological honest with this character, who really does change his emotions from moment to moment, and sometimes from line to line. It’s so much fun.”

For Pallaziol, Salieri’s motivating drive is his anger at having finally recognized that the world is not fair.

“That’s what it comes down to, for me,” he says. “Salieri craves fairness, but never finds it. He asks the audience, ‘Why does God grant genius to people who morally don’t deserve it?’

So, one final question must be asked.

Did Salieri, does the cast of “Amadeus” think, really kill Mozart?

Having spent so much time with these characters, what answer might they have regarding that age-old mystery?

In response, the trio laughs happily (if a bit darkly), but it is King who finally answers.

“You’ll just have to come see the show,” she says, “and make up your own mind about that.”

(Contact David at david.templeton@arguscourier.com)

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