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University theaters are strange places. While Detroit's small professional venues eke out an existence mounting modest productions of technically simple plays with small casts, the city's university companies routinely produce plays with casts of two dozen, full costumes, glossy handbills and demanding technical direction. Of course, it makes sense: Their mission is to make a place where theater students can explore their art, not to turn a buck. Extravagant productions give everybody a chance to shine.

Wayne State University's Hilberry Theatre is one such place, a stage where the school's grad students can strut their stuff. But, unlike the University of Detroit Mercy's Theatre Company, which casts outside actors in older roles, the Hilberry's cast consists of students in their 20s, and that's part of the bargain. Young people portraying wizened oldsters can smack of high school thespianism or high kabuki, and it doesn't fly with every audience.

But, at the Hilberry, the audience seems to lap it up. The theater provides entertainment that is sumptuous, sedate and safe. The mostly middle-aged theatergoers do not object. In fact, the opening night audience at Amadeus was so old you could have handed out Doan's Pills at the door.

Given their advanced years, it comes as little surprise that this year, for an "audience pick," Hilberry ticket-holders chose the story of a guy who just turned 250 last year. Based on the mysterious death of Mozart, Peter Shaffer's Amadeus was made into Milos Forman's Academy Award-winning motion picture. The tale of court intrigue and conflict between Mozart and mediocre court composer Antonio Salieri was handed to theater professor Joe Calarco, whose résumé is dotted with references to classical music.

Unfortunately, Calarco's Amadeus is an inert, tedious performance with long monologues and missed dramatic beats. He coaxes performances out of the players that fight against Mozart's despairing Requiem, instead of complementing the swelling music. Leaden soliloquies spell out the themes repetitively, and moments that should be cringe-worthy — as when Mozart's mouth gets him into trouble with powerful courtiers — pass without drama. It's not all Calarco's fault. In fact, viewing the three-hour play gives a sense of what a fresh edit Shaffer's 1979 play must have gotten for the screen. The '80s film bounced along with rapid edits and narration, making Mozart seem ready for Steadicam.

That said, Shaffer's text is a complex one, rich with themes of sin and repentance, talent and mediocrity, purity and corruption. The religious themes of this Cain and Abel story are more explicit than in the film. Salieri is the pious court composer who has struggled for years to become a mediocrity. Threatened by the young genius Mozart, he works behind the scenes to sink his career and even to gaslight him into madness. In lengthy monologues, Salieri calls Mozart an "obscene child" and a "filthy creature" who must be destroyed.

One of the problems of the play, in fact, is that Mozart is the one we'd really rather hang out with. He's guzzling wine, arguing art, humping strumpets, goofing off and making great music to his last syphilitic breath, and yet we must spend three hours with that prig Salieri. It's like Keith Richards is just down the block from us but we're rolling with Pat Boone.

A period production is always tough to do, and the Hilberry's backstage crew came through admirably, with elegant costumes and great lighting design, including shadowplay and silhouettes well suited to the 18th century setting.

It's surprising to find that the play is bawdier than the film was. When the foppishly dressed characters' mannered speech gives way to F-bombs and birds, it's a tough segue for even a talented actor. As Mozart, Jeff Luttermoser bears a fair resemblance to the film version's star, Tom Hulce, though without the deranged laughter that gave that performance such charm. Christopher M. Bohan's Salieri lacks madness and despair, but shows a knack for comedy, and it's good to see local actor Jeff Thomakos, who plays a count, put in a solid performance. But Nathan Magee's excellent comic timing stole a few scenes. His Joseph II at times sounds more like a Hollywood mogul than a European head of state. Little treats like that, student-actors having fun exploring their craft, keep the Hilberry shows from being tiresome academic exercises.


At the Hilberry Theatre (4743 Cass Ave., Detroit; 313-577-2972) through March 3, in rotating repertory with Side Man and On the Verge.

Michael Jackman is a writer and copy editor for Metro Times. Send comments to [email protected]