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Mozart: 18th Century rock star

Hillsboro's HART Theatre tackles the Broadway classic Amadeus

Who would have thought Tupac and Mozart would ever be talked about in the same sentence, let alone compared.

However, in HART Theatre's spring production Amadeus, originally written by Peter Shaffer in 1979 and performed on Broadway one year later, director Molly Devitt says the play about a fictionalized 18th century music rivalry speaks as much to mid-90s rival rappers Tupac Shakur and Biggie Smalls as it does to their classical predecessors, Wolfgang Mozart and Antonio Salieri.

Both end with the mysterious deaths of two musical geniuses. Suspicions arise, fingers are pointed and rivals walk free, haunted by the fact that the music of their enemies lives on, even if the men themselves are dead.

Told from Salieri's perspective, Amadeus begins as a flashback 20 years prior to Mozart's death by poisoning at the early age of 36. Set in Vienna, Austria, the rivalry between two composers was less about West Coast versus East Coast, but more about one's relationship to God and the other's lack thereof.

There is Antonio Salieri, played by Greg Prosser, a pious young man who commits himself to God through music. In his mind, to celebrate God, he must elevate his worship by becoming the best musician ever to live not only in the court of Austrian Emperor Josef, but in the world.

Then there is Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, played by Michael Shelton, who is everything Salieri is not. He is an impious and foul-mouthed partier. But to the astonishment of Salieri, Mozart's music embodies what his never could: the voice of God (Mozart's middle name Amadeus translates to 'child of God'). Believing his God-given genius to be wasted on Mozart, the envious Salieri does everything his popularity will allow to ruin his nemesis' reputation.

Though Salieri's music was 'wildly popular' during his time, he fails to achieve the historical notoriety Mozart did after he died. Consumed by envy, Salieri watches his own popularity diminish, wallowing in mediocrity as Mozart's music lives on, later inspiring Beethoven's works.

Though historical data suggests Mozart died of natural causes, likely mercury poisoning, many at the time suggested he was murdered by the jealous Salieri. The whispers echoed through time. Was Mozart poisoned? Who killed Tupac? In Amadeus, the author unearths the mystery.

Interestingly, when Shaffer wrote the play in 1979, he 'brought Salieri out of obscurity,' said Devitt. People began listening to Salieri's symphonies again and recognized how good he really was.

Devitt, a resident of Milwaukie who has a bachelor of fine arts degree and 30 years of experience in theater, couldn't say no when HART's artistic director presented her with the opportunity to direct another of her favorite screenplays. Amadeus is her second production after directing HART's Philadelphia Story in 2009.

She was in high school when the Tony-award winning Amadeus first hit Broadway in 1980 and two of her favorite actors, Ian McKellan and Tim Curry, were starring. Though Devitt didn't get to see the original production, she did watch the film based on the play that came out in 1984.

The same year, Prince and the Revolution starred in Purple Rain.

That gave Devitt the idea to infuse 1980s glam rock fashion (brocade jackets, ruffled shirts, velvet) with elements of 18th century costume. 'Those men were rockstars of their time,' said Devitt. As a modern interpretation, 'I didn't feel bad about modernizing some of the elements.'

A cast of 13 acts 23 roles in HART's version of Amadeus, which Devitt says is, quite literally, continuous action. No curtains fall to signal the end of scenes. As Salieri is narrating his story, actors dressed as servants and citizens set up the next scenes with the cast, taking on multiple roles to keep the constant flow on stage.

'It's an incredibly complex piece,' said Devitt. She adds that the biggest challenge was the way the author wrote the music as a third character, rather than being transitional or a part of the background. 'Its [music] is really driving some of the scenes,' she noted.

And just like the Mozarts' music, Shaffer's universal themes withstand the test of time.

'We can be overruled by our jealousy and not appreciate the gifts we are given,' said Devitt, , 'because we see something that someone else has and let that consume us rather than let us be the best of who we are.'