It's called Amadeus, but it's always been Salieri's play. Antonio Salieri, the tragically average Italian composer, craved fame, and so he dedicated his life and work to the "God of Bargains." The tragedy — at least in Peter Shaffer's highly fictionalized account of the rivalry between Vienna's ambitious court composer and the young, perverse Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart — isn't that Salieri wasn't rewarded for his dedication. It's that he expected so much more and, in a typically infantile way, he threw fit after selfish fit. The trend, locally at any rate, is to take Mozart's tormentor down as a deeply sympathetic figure, even as he plots ruin and eventually kills Mozart. Dave Landis went subtle and won many accolades at Playhouse on the Square in 2002. Now Tony Isbell follows suit at Theatre Memphis, creating a memorable, accidental villain who's never quite as despicable as he could be.
Salieri describes his devotion and good intentions, but he's an unreliable narrator, openly admitting only to the sin of gluttony, as envy tears him apart and lust flickers in his eyes. His curse, to recognize Mozart's true genius and his own mediocrity over the course of a long life, is a punishment on par with Sisyphus or any of the ancient mythological protagonists who imagined themselves an equal to the gods.
Mozart is Salieri's opposite: fully human, dissolute, and diseased. Having grown up on stage, a freak of virtuosity, the musician's development is trapped in adolescence, like every other rock star on VH1. Marques Brown makes Mozart a scatalogical naif, brilliant but clumsy and entirely unable to manage his own affairs.
Aliza Moran, an underestimated local performer, is a revelation here as Constanze, Mozart's dizzy but devoted wife. She floats through the early acts like bubbles in Champagne, growing harder and heavier with every tick until, at last, she's an unrecognizable drudge. In some regards, her story is told more thoroughly than any other in Theatre Memphis' elegant revival.
The supporting players work hard and keep things moving and look good in Andre Bruce Ward's typically outstanding costumes. They only occasionally rise to an appropriate level of ridiculousness and self-importance.
Director Kell Christie has brought the threads of her gorgeous production together well enough, but the dynamics of Shaffer's relentlessly musical piece aren't as varied or as bold as they could be. Amadeus can be big and political, a study in court (and corporate) culture and raw trickle-down economics. It can also be big and mythological, a Cain and Abel story for modern audiences. Theatre Memphis' Amadeus is content being big. It's usually enough.
Through February 20th at Theatre Memphis
Loraine Hansberry's A Raisin in the Sun is worth checking out if only to see county commissioner Steve Mulroy in a powder-blue suit and sporting a truly embarrassing haircut. Fortunately for the commish, who portrays the show's kinder, gentler bigot, it's only a wig and in this context ridiculous is good.
A Raisin in the Sun is just one of those plays. Like Our Town and The Glass Menagerie and other faded classics, it's often performed by amateurs setting expectations so low that a truly excellent production is almost jarring. And the Hattiloo's unpretentious depiction of Chicago's Younger family, torn apart over a little money and the opportunities it represents, is that rare production.
Although she takes on one of the play's less showy roles, Mary Pruitt gives one of this season's best performances as Ruth, the pregnant, long-suffering wife of Willie Younger, an angry young chauffeur who wants to go into business for himself. Her mousy facade conceals an ocean of frustration and desire that bursts out occasionally, with hilarious and moving results. Kristie Steele, Bronzjuan Worthy, and Emmanuel McKinney do excellent character work as a brainy student, busybody neighbor, and Nigerian exchange student, respectively. Marsha Neely steals scenes as the Youngers' tough-loving matriarch and as Willie, Keith LaMount Robinson's anger oozes off the stage. His impatience, if ugly, is understandable and his losses are devastating.
Through February 27th at the Hattiloo Theatre