The Aurora Fox Theatre's striking production of Peter Shaffer's Amadeus proves once again that one can abhor the sentiments of a playwright and still find depth, meaning and mastery in his work. But it takes an ingenious performance or two, luminous directorial insight and a willingness from the audience to think through the nasty issues this play raises.
Amadeus offers cause for psychic riot--and fortunately, director Penny Walrath (who gave us a fabulous Twelfth Night and Hamlet last year) is just the woman to stir up that riot. Her staging is always right on, lively and delicious. The lighting by Sheree Goecke is gorgeous, as are Tricia Stevens's costumes (all but the atrocious wigs). The casting is terrific--Don Ryan as Mozart and Emily Newman Walton as Mrs. Mozart are delightful, and all the supporting players bring intelligent interpretations to their roles.
But the principal reason for this production's success is a stunning performance by Chip Walton as the composer-turned-demon Antonio Salieri. Shaffer casts this contemporary of Mozart's as a villain who laid the great musical genius's career and, eventually, his very life, to rack and ruin. And Walton dives into Salieri's heart headfirst--he is subtle, slimy, pitiable and scathing by turns. In each turn of a phrase, each delicate nuance of body language, Walton allows a new layer of bilious evil to emerge.
Of course, at the marrow of all evil is pettiness, and it is the petty spirit of Walton's Salieri that drives the horrific events of the story. As the play opens, Salieri is an old man who tells us he is about to die. When he was a lad of sixteen, he tells us, he made a bargain with God: I'll be good if You will make me a great composer. God appeared to have answered Salieri's prayer by giving him fame and fortune. But Mozart's brilliance is a constant rebuke to Salieri's mediocrity. The whole play is really a confession by a rebellious Catholic, angry at God for denying him the talent Mozart got instead.
Salieri then takes us back forty years to 1781, when he first met the ambitious young Mozart. Profane, licentious and vain, Mozart is a giggling brat of a genius--a naughty child with more talent than sense. Salieri is incensed that so unworthy a fool should be God's emissary--the one who, through music, proves the Deity's existence. Salieri pretends to befriend Mozart, but he secretly envies him to the point of murderous rage. He begins orchestrating Mozart's decline--and all to get back at God.
Despite his reverses of fortune, Mozart continues to produce ever greater works of art. But Salieri's hate is so fierce that, in Shaffer's tale, it slowly poisons Mozart to death. Sick, frightened and deserted, Mozart composes his final work, the incredible Requiem Mass--the final outrage to Salieri.
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Needless to say, Shaffer's take on history is questionable in the extreme. But Amadeus is not really about history. It is about the envy genius excites in lesser minds. The exposure of the destructive power of envy is what's best about the play--and the thing that saves it from descending utterly into fascist propaganda.
Salieri's infantile religiosity (bargains with God, for heaven's sake) is only a reflection of Shaffer's infantile take on the meaning and purpose of art, with all its political implications. Why compare Paul Klee to Picasso, Robert De Niro to Sir Laurence Olivier, Martin Scorsese to Spike Lee, when all these artists have something very different to say, special talents to offer, and different visions of reality to impart? Shaffer is an elitist, and the trouble with elitism is its utter failure to recognize intelligence, beauty and integrity among "the people" it so despises. His Nietzschean perspective (a small group of supermen versus "the botched and the bungled") promotes a hierarchy in the arts--a dangerous and fruitless exercise encouraged in most universities but universally recognized by artists as a shallow pursuit.
When Salieri actually blesses and absolves us--the audience--for our mediocrity, Shaffer's arrogance is so blatant it makes you want to puke. The playwright almost seems to loathe the audience. You wonder if he's really saying that he's another Mozart and the rest of us are scum.
Still, Shaffer manages to shake up complacency with this riveting play. You either buy his bogus vision of reality or you stand up to it. In either case, you've been extravagantly entertained.