Although the story revolves around the life, and more importantly the death, of one of Europe's greatest composers, Amadeus is a memory play, told from the perspective of Mozart's greatest rivals, Antonio Salieri. Cursed with the ability to perceive greatness but never attain it, Salieri's envy of the new young upstart composer is made manifest over the course of three hours, culminating in Mozart's ruination and public disgrace, all orchestrated masterfully by the Court Composer masquerading as Amadeus's closest friend.
But what of Mozart's death? Was he, in fact, murdered, as they whisper on the streets of Vienna decades after his passing? That is what Salieri intends to divulge to his audience, the ghosts of the future he has invoked for his final performance. The scene is recreated through the lens of Salieri's mind, and he revels in the perfect, divine beauty of Mozart's music even as he seethes over the idea that such an uncouth, irreverent fool could create it, while he, Salieri, leads a life of virtue yet can never be better than a mediocre composer at best.
The play is an examination of the life of an eccentric genius, for what man who lives as everyone else can ever be able to create music that rises above the norm? For all his apparent senselessness, the passion to create perfection drives Amadeus beyond all else. He may have no qualms telling anyone who will listen that his operas are the best ever written, but even Salieri cannot dispute the fact. And, although the Pennsylvania Shakespeare Festival's production is very good, it falls just short of the level of genius Mozart was known for.
This is partly due to the characterizations of Salieri and Mozart themselves, played by William Elsman and Steve Burns, respectively. Although both men begin to capture the essence of their roles, neither manages to fully explore the depths and complexities of the men. Elsman's Salieri is, by turns, either declamatory or angry; ironically, it is his work as the elderly composer that is more captivating and real than his portrayal of Salieri in his prime. Burns nicely grasps the intensity that drives Amadeus in both work and play, as well as his physicality. He knows just how long to hold an irreverent pause to get a laugh, but he does not quite develop the vulnerability that makes Mozart sympathetic to the audience.
Still, Amadeus, under the direction of Dennis Razze, is a solid production, if slightly tame, considering the wide spectrum of light and dark moments the story undergoes. Of particular note is the excellent scenic design of Will Neuert. The projections of the various locales on the upstage wall combined with the floor cleverly built in the shape of a stringed instrument provide a wonderfully metaphoric space upon which Salieri's memories may be played out. And the funeral of Mozart, staged to his own "Lacrymosa," is perhaps one of the most achingly beautiful burials to be put on stage.
Amadeus ran through July 8 at the Pennsylvania Shakespeare Festival, on the DeSales University campus. Tickets for the rest of the festival are available by phone at 610-282-WILL, or online at www.pashakespeare.org. Ticket prices $30-$41.
Amadeus Cast and Creative Team
CAST: (in order of appearance)