If I were you, I'd take a moment right now and reserve a seat for the puppet theater version of Amadeus, currently on the boards at the Hellenic Cultural Center (alongside City Park, out by the Lakefront). For one thing, the theater is small. The auditorium isn't. But, with the uncanny mixture of imagination and care that marks this wonderful show, guiding spirits Steve Zissis and Arthur Mintz have built a theater within a theater to concentrate their effects and create an encompassing dream world of myth.
The use of puppetry in their inspired hands, rather than seeming an arbitrary decorative elaboration, becomes the means of liberating Peter Shaffer's script. This is a production full of joy, humor and beauty -- as well as that terror and pity for the human dilemma that Aristotle located at the inmost heart of drama.
The show was designed and directed by Zissis and Mintz, stalwarts of a gang that's given us many flashes of beauty and humor in previous unorthodox original shows, like Hardware (which featured other collaborators such as Barret O'Brien, Jacques Dufforc and Bryan Spitzfaden). In Amadeus, they have pulled back from free-for-all experiment and set out to illuminate a modern classic.
Behind a magnificent, ornate papier maché gold frame sculpted with a motif of death and salvation (by Joe Barth, who also made the puppets along with Paul Gulotta, Eric Wright and Mintz), we see the once-famous court composer Antonio Salieri (Mark Krasnoff). He invokes us, the audience -- ghosts of the future -- to appear before him and hear his story. And by a clever bit of stage illusion, we do, in fact, appear (this effect as do many lovely moments of the show come courtesy of David Guidry's lighting).
Salieri tells us about his childhood and a bargain he made with God according to which he, Salieri, would display exemplary dedication and virtue in return for His, God's, gift of musical ability. Actually, the bargain goes a little further, for Salieri wants his abilities to be recognized. He wants fame, above all.
Salieri, now living in Vienna as court composer to Joseph II, Emperor of Austria, is informed by his "little winds" of gossip (Kim Collins and Raphaelle) that Mozart is coming to town. The scene shifts, or rather we slip into a new dimension. Now, and for the remainder of the first act, a phantasmagoric mixture of puppets and humans tells the story. The scale of the action shrinks and expands fluidly. At some points, we attend performances in an exquisite baroque opera house. We are even provided opera glasses to make sure we can fully appreciate the microcosm.
The staging throughout is a delight -- filled with remarkable apparitions, like a pinwheel of court luminaries (brought to life by Oskie Creech) or the lisping imp of an emperor (C. Caine Lee, formerly known as Chris).
The central plot concerns Mozart, his wife Constanze and, of course, the ever-present Salieri. In the second act, when the action swings from comic to tragic, the production wisely turns the stage over to the humans. Not that puppets can't carry tragedy, but their tragedy is essentially silent or, at least, laconic. And Shaffer's play would have to be radically altered or it would risk becoming grotesque.
In the hands of this capable cast (all of whom are present as human beings in the first act, as well), the falling away of the puppet world is hardly noticeable. Ryan Reinike brings an inherent dignity to the gauche goofiness of the young Mozart. We can actually believe him (and that's a rare accomplishment in the role). In the same way, Jesse Meriwether gives us a Constanze who is charming, attractive and capable of deep feeling. This is a young couple who grow up in their tragedy. We recognize the faults of youth and we are moved by the truthfulness of the portrayal.
Ultimately, of course, the play hangs on Salieri. He is a magnificent, newly minted archetype; a reverse Faust, who goes to war with God. Mark Krasnoff carries off the seemingly impossible task of acting the part, while transforming totally or partly into a puppet reflection of himself, as though to the manner born. He is a wry, amusing raconteur who gradually reveals the intense ugliness of moral decay. "There but for fortune," we think, with an involuntary shudder.
Amadeus is another of those high points of local drama that have been washing in on us from some mysterious psychic gulf stream and given a new sense of urgency and excitement to local theater over the last few years. Once again, there is no better summation than, "Don't miss it!"
- Helping hand: Mark Krasnoff's Salieri, whether in puppet or human form, is acting at its finest in the puppet version of Amadeus on the boards at the Hellenic Cultural Center.