Through April 20
As its final main stage production of the spring season, PlayMakers Repertory Company at UNC-Chapel Hill has revived Peter Shaffer’s deeply touching 1979 play Amadeus. “Beloved of God,” that was Wolfgang Mozart’s middle name. It was the state of being so desired by contemporaneous composer Antonio Salieri that he twisted his own soul in his desperate attempts to ruin Mozart, in hopes that his music would then speak in God’s voice, the way he perceived that Mozart’s did.
Salieri is a tragic figure. Music is all to him, and he does pretty well out of an early bargain with God, leaving his native Italy and becoming composer to the imperial court of Joseph II in Vienna, where he composes and plays to everybody’s satisfaction. That is, until the arrival of young virtuoso Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, with his coarse behaviors and his celestial music. Salieri understands Mozart’s genius immediatelyand his own mediocrity. What a cruel fate! To perceive greatness in art and know you will never attain it! Salieri believes himself betrayed by God, and in his rage and pain takes up battle with God through Mozart. As they say, the mills of God grind fine, but exceeding slow. Mozart dies very young, ill and maddened, the manuscript sheets of his own “Requiem Mass” unfinished around him, while God takes his time grinding down Salieri, allowing him to apparently triumph, only to know finally and fully his own insignificance. Like Salieri, playwright Shaffer wrestles with big questions through Amadeus: Where is God’s justice, when He shuns one who serves him, and allows a perfect art to pour from a bad person? Salieri is like Adam, burdened with understanding, although for him it is not the difference between good and evil that torments him, but that between good and great.
Although the play has a sizeable cast and, naturally, a large role for Mozart, it belongs to Salieri. It is a role that requires not only empathy from the actor, but endurance, as Salieri is on stage throughout the play. PRC’s Ray Dooley gives a powerful performance, and director Joseph Haj’s pacing gives us time to appreciate it. The writing is studded with trenchant lines of bitter wisdom; there is no need to hurry past them, and we don’t. These are frilled around with rapid bits of playfulness, like Mozartian variations, and further lightened by the repeated mockery of the Emperor’s recurring line: “Well, there it is!” But Salieri, even when physically in the background, remains always at the center, the dark, dense force, his corroded heart seeking salvation from the future. Dooley speaks directly to us, his eyes riveting us as he pleads, demands and absolves. His performance is not bravura; its remarkable restraint magnifies its power.
The contrast between Dooley’s restraint as Salieri and Vince Nappo’s boisterous, arrogant Mozart is almost too great. The urge to get up and slap Mozart was a little distracting, and one did wonder why the Court put up with him, when they (excepting Salieri) didn’t really appreciate his music. However, it’s worth it in the end when we see the broken, dying Mozart, stripped of all his vanities, and regretfully remember his youthful ebullience, however much it may have been compounded of folly.
Although I found it a trifle mechanical near the end, Janie Brookshire gives a very nice performance as Constanze, Mozart’s fiancée and young wife. She was charming scurrying under furniture in her first scene, and quite touching as the new bride trying to decide just how far to go to promote her husband’s career. John Feltch is a hoot as the Emperor Joseph, a man with the power and riches to have the best, but without the wit or sensibility to appreciate it. Jeffrey Blair Cornell and Kenneth P. Strong provide strong buttressing as the Baron van Swieten and Johann von Strack, and the rest of the cast is equally competent.
Amadeus is a play on which lavish production is not wasted. PRC has deployed its resources admirably. Scene designer McKay Coble has transformed the Paul Green Theater’s utilitarian thrust stage into an elegant 18th-century setting, which is brought to life by Marcus Doshi’s very good lighting design. This lighting is like a live thing, almost an actor itself. Constantly changing, it leads our understanding and wordlessly echoes the characters’ feelings. Bill Black’s costumes are gorgeous and expressive, especially Salieri’s. Dooley as Salieri changes age before our eyes several times, and the costuming helps him do it. The one mysterious deficiency in the production is the music. While I appreciated not having the speeches drowned out by music, it seemed very odd not to unleash its power at appropriate moments. To compensate, you may have to go home and crank up the Requiem (K.626) as you contemplate Salieri’s benediction: “Future mediocrities of the world, I forgive you.”