It's a good thing Cadenza: Mozart's Last Year is running now instead of anytime in 2006. The legendary Viennese composer was the center of the classical-music universe that year amid a nationwide celebration of his 250th birthday; San Diego business and arts organizations mounted nearly 1 billion concerts and events in his honor, and Cadenza would've been swallowed up in the crush.
That's not to say this original Vantage Theatre production can't stand on its own. Vantage's approach to style often involves a certain excess (long dramatic pauses, generous space between performers and set pieces, a preponderance of poses), and it works here amid glimpses of 18th-century Viennese opulence. And La Jolla playwright Robert Salerno, Vantage artist in residence, stays consistent in the tone of his dialogue while coloring the speeches just enough to differentiate the characters.
It's just that Cadenza takes the short way around history to make its point. The decent acting (led by Rhys Green as Mozart and Dave Rivas as Beethoven) fleshes out factual information on Mozart's life; he routinely took more work than he could handle, he was eventually given to terminal sickliness (perhaps as a result of childhood rheumatic fever), and his history of lousy investments often made life tough in his cash-strapped household. But co-directors Salerno and Dori Salois never establish the importance of all that as they ask Mozart to face death at 35 on his own terms.
To boot, the second act features a collection of iconic figures throughout time and wholesale references to The Magic Flute, Mozart's monumental opera on queenly betrayal and priestly wisdom. That work is also the vehicle through which Mozart makes a dignified exit—yet that exit contains not a whisper about the first-act exposition that led to it. Cadenza is thus almost two plays, both with interesting treatments but each lacking the critical bridge that would have assured closure as Mozart takes off for parts unknown.
“The real music,” Mozart says at one point, “is [in] the silence between the notes.” That's a metaphor for a basic universal tenet: An infinite number of forces are at work in the world, their staggering majority beyond our understanding. Mozart knew that instinctively, and so do Salerno and Salois. They could have presented that philosophy more forcefully with a short middle act on life's impermanence or with more learned opinions on Mozart's everyday conduct. But Salerno's picked a figure whose monumental stature measures up to the heavy topics at hand—add the committed performances, and you have a watchable piece. This review is based on the production of Oct. 12. Cadenza: Mozart's Last Year runs through Oct. 28 at Centro Cultural de la Raza, 2125 Park Blvd., Balboa Park. $18-$20. 619-235-6135 or www.vantagetheatre.com.
Miss Jessel and Peter Quint are a lady and lord of the lake now, and their mysterious deaths have a young governess at loose ends, especially when she thinks she sees their ghosts. In the process, she makes Jeffrey Hatcher's stage adaptation of Henry James' The Turn of the Screw the thrifty, cadenced yarn it is. Cygnet Theatre's currently taking a pretty good stab at it, with director Janet Hayatshahi successfully separating the fanciful from the just plain dark. This play gets lots of buzz about the ghosts, chiefly centering on whether they're real. I think that debate's silly and beside the point—in any event, you'll likely want to form an opinion on whether they've taken on lives of their own. I've formed mine, and I think the key lies in the governess' kindly entreaty during the last 60 seconds. Meanwhile, Amy Biedel as the governess and Hayatshahi's husband David Tierney in multiple roles own the stage despite the drawbacks to Sean Murray's set, which spoon-feeds the action at just about every turn.
Cygnet mounts St. Nicholas, Conor McPherson's tall tale about one man's obsession and a journey into the world of London vampires, tonight, Oct. 17, through Nov. 10 as a companion piece to The Turn of the Screw. San Diego actor Ron Choularton is the sole performer, and on that strength, I'll suggest this piece sight unseen. The Turn of the Screw runs through Nov. 11 at Cygnet Theatre, 6663 El Cajon Blvd., College Area. $27-32. 619-337-1525 or www.cygnettheatre.com.