- Greggory Moore
When I first read Peter Shaffer’s Equus, I was so enthralled that I ran out and rented Sidney Lumet’s film adaptation. Although quite faithful to its source, I noted minor variations from the play—all of them improvements. And why not? It was Shaffer who wrote the screenplay, so he was basically taking a second bite at the apple. I’ve seen multiple productions of Equus, but the film is simply better.
There’s been a similar hazard in staging Shaffer’s Amadeus since 1984, when Milos Foreman—with Shaffer’s help—turned the play into an Academy Award-winner for Best Picture. So why see South Coast Repertory’s current production? Well, it’s been a long time since you’ve seen the film Amadeus. Besides, unlike with Equus, the differences between the stage and film versions are pronounced. This isn’t an apples-to-apples thing. The play and the film are truly different fruits.
On what he says is the last night of his life, composer Antonio Salieri (Marco Barricelli) directly addresses the audience. We are “ghosts of the future” he has conjured on this night in 1823 so we can hear his final composition: The Death of Mozart—or, Did I Do It? Mozart, of course, needs no introduction. He remains the most celebrated composer in the history of “classical” music, and Salieri knows that we future ghosts know Mozart’s music. But Salieri has conjured us so that we also know why he worked to destroy the man he dubs both “the Creature” and “God’s instrument.”
We are transported back to 1781, when Mozart (Asher Grodman) first arrived in Vienna. Salieri, at 31 “the most successful young musician in the city of musicians,” is appalled to find that 25-year-old Mozart, already famous for nearly two decades, is a lout, “an obscene child.” But the music that child produces! “It seemed to me that I had heard the voice of God,” he says, “[…] and it says only one name: MOZART! Spiteful, sniggering, conceited, infantine Mozart, who has never worked one minute to help another man! [… God] has chosen him to be [His] sole conduit! And my only reward—my sublime privilege—is to be the sole man alive in this time who shall clearly recognize [God’s] incarnation!” And so Salieri declares war on God, “in the waging of which, of course, the Creature had to be destroyed.”
Barricelli is a solid Salieri, able to sound the whole scale: joy and despair, amusement and disgust, self-assurance and existential doubt. He plays the dramatic as well as the comedic, seamlessly sliding between situational dialog and expository monolog. And considering that there’s generally not a moment of downtime for him to collect himself (Shaffer expressly wrote that the play’s action should not pause even during scene changes), such seamlessness is no mean trick. Fail on that count, and even a well-acted staging will take on a stilted quality. But SCR’s never does.
The role of Mozart is an odd one. Despite being the eponym, Shaffer’s Mozart—or Salieri’s Mozart, if you will—displays far less range than his bitter antagonist. There’s only one onstage moment when we glimpse his genius; otherwise, he’s all puerility, churlishness, and ego in Act 1, before privation and personal demons take their toll. Because there’s not a lot to do with the role, it’s more difficult for those of us who have seen the film to put out of mind Tom Hulce’s big-screen take (that ridiculous laugh) than it is F. Murray Abraham’s Oscar-winning Salieri. So although Grodman is good, we are haunted by Hulce’s ghost.
The most challenging supporting roles—and perhaps the most thankless—are Salieri’s venticelli, the two “little winds” (Christian Barillas and Louis Lotorto) who both bring Salieri news and gossip and function as a Greek chorus. Their proclamations, almost always adagios of alternating sentences or even single words in length, are always delivered with the perfect synchronization Shaffer requires of them.
As usual, SCR’s production values are top-notch. Alex Jaeger’s costumes are killer (Mozart’s coats!), and Lap Chi Chu’s lighting always evokes the right mood. Director Kent Nicholson utilizes all of the elements at his disposal to perfection, producing just the flow that Shaffer intends.
Sure, you can hop on Netflix and see an outstanding version of Amadeus. But what South Coast Repertory is offering is pure Peter Shaffer’s Amadeus. And that ain’t bad.
AMADEUS SOUTH COAST REPERTORY • SEGERSTROM STAGE: 655 TOWN CENTER DR • COSTA MESA 92626 • 714.708.5555 SCR.ORG • SUN/TUES/WED 7:30PM, THURS-SAT 8PM + SAT-SUN 2:30PM • $22-$77 • THROUGH JUNE 5
(Photo credit: Debora Robinson/SCR)