Saturday, March 24, 2012
Ludwig and Wolfgang: Birds of a Feather?
Ludwig and Wolfgang: Birds of a Feather?
By Tom Wachunas
In 1787, 16 year-old Ludwig van Beethoven traveled some 900 miles from Bonn to Vienna with the hope of training under Wolfgang Mozart, who was then 31. The evidence that such a meeting ever really took place is anecdotal and otherwise highly disputed. But just thinking of the possible scenario (Oh, to be a fly on the wall of Mozart’s study!) was enough to inspire two local writers – Frank Motz and Rochelle Haas – to pen an eminently credible story that grew from their dedicated research on the two geniuses, considered by many to be the greatest composers of all time.
The resulting two-act play, “Ludwig and Wolfgang”, which Motz directed, had its world premiere at the Kathleen Howland Theatre on March 23. I can tell you unequivocally that it’s a truly sublime work, impeccably crafted to exude all the joy and humor, as well as the brooding pathos of its subjects. What’s more, you need not be a classical music aficionado to be thoroughly entertained by the story’s engaging warmth and accessibility.
The play opens with the character of Franz Joseph Haydn (historically regarded as “The Father of the Symphony”) addressing the audience from the anteroom of the Concert Hall of Vienna University in March of 1808. The occasion is a concert celebrating his 76th birthday. Leave it to local stage veteran Don Jones to transform himself so convincingly for this role, right down to his cracked, frail voice and the ashen skin of old age. Throughout the evening he narrates the proceedings with genuinely charming, often funny observations and recollections of his distinguished career as it intersected with that of Mozart and Beethoven. Jones’ delivery is well- tempered with the gently sad if not resolved spirit of a great man who, sensing his immanent passing (he died in May, 1809), wonders how he will be remembered just when what he regards as two genius misfits are on the rise.
Another accomplished veteran of local theatre, John Scavelli, plays Mozart with what at first appears to be a weary, somewhat jaded energy – no doubt a consequence of the composer’s well-known penchant for late-night carousing and the burden of unpaid debts. But it’s an energy that evolves soon enough into a more vigorous spunk as he spars with the young Beethoven, whom the older composer admits is an easy target for his barbed wit. Scavelli’s performance is a remarkably facile one that, while successfully embodying Mozart’s impish amusement, bemusement, and exasperation with Beethoven’s somber self-absorption, nonetheless conveys an authentic empathy for his troubled visitor.
And in the role of the introspective, prim and proper, upstart Beethoven, 15 year-old E.J. Dubinski is himself very impressive indeed - exhibiting at once a self –assurance beyond his years and a boyish vulnerability. It is a duality that becomes ever more compelling as he reluctantly speaks of his abusive father. This in turn fuels his disarming, sometimes searing observations about Mozart’s father, Leopold, causing Wolfgang to feel defensive and vulnerable in his own right.
Rounding out the cast is Jay Spencer. Late in the second act he appears as a messenger, informing Mozart that Beethoven was called back to Bonn to aid his ailing mother. Before that, we encounter Spencer as the hilariously sonorous, insulting voice of a man banging on Mozart’s door, demanding payment of a debt. In one scene, Dubinski is delightful in his portrayal of the righteously incensed Beethoven paying the debt from his travel allowance, but only after extracting a begrudging apology from the disrespectful collector.
For all the apparent personality contrasts and conflicts between ‘master’ and would-be student here, between extrovert and introvert, the two composers do find common ground in their agreement to seek what joy they can in their art. In one particularly effective scene during the second act, Wolfgang leads Ludwig back to his library (appearing as a long row of books visible above and behind the rear wall of Mozart’s study), and instructs him to climb the ladder to the top shelf. Ludwig in turn demands that Wolfgang join him. Only their heads are visible, nearly touching the ceiling as they speak. Kindred minds soaring. It’s an endearingly metaphorical vision, really – Haydn’s misfits in a moment of mutually heightened awareness, as it were. Like birds in flight.
Ludwig and Wolfgang shows at 8:00pm Friday and Saturday through March 31, in the Kathleen Howland Theatre, 324 Cleveland Avenue NW, downtown Canton. Tickets are $10. To order, call (330) 451 – 0924, or visit www.secondapril.org
Photo: (left) E.J. Dubinski as Beethoven, John Scavelli as Mozart