Sir Peter Shaffer wrote three large-scale hits in the 1960s and 1970s: The Royal Hunt of the Sun, Equus, and Amadeus. Of the three, Amadeus, with its intriguing, if not necessarily true, rivalry between well-known composers, is by far the most popular. The trick in staging any of the three is not to let them become overblown. Director Richard Baird has turned that trick marvelously with his production of Amadeus for the opening of North Coast Repertory Theatre’s 38th season.
Casting is more than half the battle, and North Coast has cast well indeed. The two rivals, around whom the plot rotates, are an odd couple. Antonio Salieri is portrayed as straight-laced, a man whose compositions please those who patronize him, particularly Austria’s Emperor Joseph II. Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, on the other hand, is portrayed as Vienna’s bad boy of 1823, a prodigy who was put on display as a child and never outgrew his childish ways. Naïve in the ways of the sophisticated society of Vienna and missing his father’s stern but guiding hand, Mozart naturally produces masterpieces but can’t sell them to audiences. And, he makes a mess of his own life, too.
As Salieri, NCRT has managed to land the veteran actor Tony Amendola, who counts an award-winning King Lear among his many classical credits. Salieri is a tragic figure in Shaffer’s reckoning: of all those around him, only he recognizes Mozart’s genius, as well as his own mediocrity. Mr. Amendola artfully broods, schemes, and gossips. He’s a low-key charmer, almost an unconvincing villain.
Mozart needs to be young but also capable of playing in classical style. Rafael Goldstein admirably fills this bill. A company member at Pasadena’s A Noise Within, Mr. Goldstein has both a heroic Henry V and a farcical Noises Off to his credit. Both experiences stand him in good stead to play a man who has to be both over-the-top and tragically heroic in order to succeed.
The unwitting moderator for these two characters is the Emperor, as it is his opinion on which both men’s career success depends. Louis Lotorto has performed in six other productions of Amadeus, and he knows that it is the Emperor’s job to keep things light, to treat his judgments that affect both men as if they were but passing thoughts. “Too many notes,” he tosses off, and his signature aphorism, “Ah…Well, there it is,” becomes only funnier as the evening progresses.
The rest of the characters (Kathryn Tkel as Constanza Weber, Nick Kennedy as Count Johann Kilian Von Strack, Andrew Oswald as Count Orsini-Rosenberg, Andrew Barnicle as Baron Gottfried Van Swieten, Alice Sherman as Venticelli 2/Salieri’s Wife Teresa, Christopher M. Williams as Venticelli 1, and Leigh Ellen Akin as Katherina Cavalieri are more in the background, but when they emerge they are fully engaged in their characters. This sign of an excellent ensemble is also a sign of excellent direction, and Mr. Baird deserves high marks for staging an intimate production where pageantry is eschewed in favor of emotional engagement. The climatic scene where Salieri and Mozart get “down and dirty” is worth the price of admission alone.
This cast reminded me of days when a number of fine actors plied their substantial craft on the west coast regional circuit. Jonathan McMurtry, one of their number and an Old Globe Associate Artist, found a home at NCRT in the twilight of his career. Had he lived, I think that he would have heartily approved of his colleagues’ work in this production.
In a piece where acting is all, the creative elements become secondary. But, Marty Burnett’s scenic design, Matthew Novotny’s lighting design, and Phillip Korth’s props all get the job done. Costumes and wigs are necessarily more elaborate, and Elisa Benzoni and Peter Herman shine respectively with these designs. And, Mr. Baird makes very clever use of moments when his characters are not wearing their wigs.
It is clear that Artistic Director David Ellenstein and his colleagues wanted to begin the new season with a bang – and they have. Audiences have noticed: the production closing has been extended until October 6.