The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill’s PlayMakers Repertory Company is closing its 2007-08 season with a blockbuster: the original stage play of Amadeus, written by Peter Shaffer (Equus) in 1979 and adapted by the playwright into the hugely popular movie in 1984. Shaffer uses the lives of two contemporaries, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756-1791) and Antonio Salieri (1750-1825), to weave a most cosmic tale of talent, power, love, betrayal, and God.
PRC pulls out all the stops for this production, making full use of their unique thrust stage with a stunning set by McKay Coble; the magnificent costumes of the era, designed here by Bill Black; and an inspired direction by Joseph Haj. The play, though having a large cast of 20, including five ensemble members, focuses almost exclusively on the war that takes place between the Austrian court composer Salieri (Ray Dooley) and his god. The reason for this war is Mozart (Vince Nappo), a brash and irreverent young Austrian who can nonetheless silence Salieri with genius compositions that defy the older and more classically trained Italian to match them.
An interesting aside here: Ray Dooley, described in PRC’s Spotlight newsletter as their “Man of 1000 Faces,” is reprising his role for this production, having portrayed the character in 1985 at Cincinnati’s Playhouse in the Park. Vince Nappo, our Mozart, a New York actor with degrees from both Wales and Colorado, also has a previous connection to the work, having performed in two plays at New York City’s Theatre for a New Audience opposite F. Murray Abraham, who played Salieri in the movie and won an Oscar for his work.
Shaffer’s cosmic battle between Salieri and his “God of Bargains” (as Salieri learned growing up), comes from the fact that Salieri, as a lad, prayed to this god that, if the youth could grow to be a famous musician and composer, he would worship God all his days with music. God seems to answer in the affirmative, as Salieri is whisked away by a distant relative for conservatory training and, in due course, comes to the duty of court composer to the Austrian Emperor, Joseph II (John Feltch), and earns both fame and wealth. He is satisfied that the bargain has been kept until the arrival in Vienna of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, a coarse young man who barely fits the definition of a “gentleman” but who is, nevertheless, the vast superior of Salieri in musical ability. But this hateful god, Salieri tells us in his last confession, gave only him the astute ability to hear and understand Mozart’s stunning works for what they are: transcriptions of finished works that the man hears, completely finished, in his head. Salieri interprets this to be a curse placed upon him by this god, who graces this young whippet with abilities and talents that are denied his lifelong servant. Indeed, rather than offer his life to service, Mozart is only tangentially aware that there is any God, unless it is the Muse of Music.
This is, as anyone who is familiar with Shaffer or the movie of this work, a mesmerizing play that examines cosmic conundrums of faith, worth, talent, and betrayal. Upon realization that Amadeus (in Latin, literally, “loved by God”) is his musical superior and God’s voice upon Earth, Salieri declares his bargain broken, that he and his god are now enemies, and that he will make it his life’s work to bring down this insolent youth and silence that voice. But in order to get close to Mozart, Salieri must befriend him; and Mozart, his own life troubled and doomed, trusts and listens to Salieri implicitly. This seems to Salieri to make his work all too easy, until the elder realizes that, despite his best efforts, Mozart will be immortal and Salieri’s music will, even in his own lifetime, become “extinct.”
In addition to a clever and scintillating characterization by Nappo as Mozart, PRC peoples its large cast with familiar and exemplary faces we recognize. Returning to the stage as PRC members are Jeffrey Blair Cornell as Baron van Swieten and Kenneth P. Strong as Johann von Strack, both members of Joseph II’s court; David Adamson, well-disguised as Kappellmeister Bonno; and Janie Brookshire as the fetching Frau Mozart. But this, the sixth script penned by Shaffer, is a bit different in detail from the second, which Ray Dooley used for his first portrayal. It is, too, quite a different animal than the movie, a realization that director Haj took great pains to remember during rehearsal. Haj has commented that, in this play, both Salieri and Mozart are protagonists. It is Salieri’s “god of bargains” that is the enemy in this work. From the audience, however, it may seem that Salieri is the protagonist, his god the antagonist, and Mozart the unwitting prize, or even the battlefield, over which they duel.
Regardless of the interpretation, Dooley gives a superb and highly nuanced performance, growing older or younger instantly. His Salieri takes the audience into his confidence as “ghosts of the future,” his confessors, and gives his rage and feelings of betrayal full reign. The connection Ray Dooley makes with us is never once out of his hand; and he pulls, cajoles, or even drags us along with him into his character’s own madness at a breakneck speed, aided by blink-of-the-eye scene changes that do not interrupt the flow of this roller-coaster of a ride.
Combine this sensational performance with a superb cast, a marvelous set including what appears to be a Michelangelo-painted dome overhead, and a near-seamless interaction of on- and offstage talent, and PRC’s Amadeus becomes the crowning achievement for the 2007-08 season and, perhaps, the Triangle’s first blockbuster event of 2008.
PlayMakers Repertory Company presents Amadeus Tuesday-Friday, April 8-11, at 8 p.m.; Saturday, April 12, 2 and 8 p.m.; Sunday, April 13, at 2 p.m.; Tuesday-Saturday, April 15-19, at 8 p.m.; and Sunday, April 20, at 2 p.m. in the Paul Green Theatre in the Center for Dramatic Art, 120 Country Club Rd., at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. $10-$32. 919/962-PLAY or http://www.playmakersrep.org/tickets/. Note 1: There will be free post-show discussions after the 8 p.m. April 9th and 2 p.m. April 13th performances. Note 2: There will be a special Educational Matinees at 10:30 a.m. on April 9th and 17th (for details, see http://www.playmakersrep.org/tickets/studentmatinee.aspx). Note 3: There will be an all-access performance at 8 p.m. on April 15th, which will be audio-described and sign-language-interpreted by Arts Access, Inc. of Raleigh, NC (http://www.artsaccessinc.org/), and also features Braille playbills, large-print playbills, and a tactile tour (arranged in advance) for patrons with impaired vision. PlayMakers Repertory Company: http://playmakersrep.org. Internet Broadway Database: http://www.ibdb.com/show.asp?ID=1502. Internet Movie Database: http://imdb.com/title/tt0086879/. The Mozart Project: The Life, Times and Music of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart: http://www.mozartproject.org/. Amadeus and Mozart: Setting the Record Straight (article by A. Peter Brown (from the Winter 1992 issue of The American Scholar): http://www.mozartproject.org/essays/brown.html.