At Brüka Theatre, the traditional rows of seats are replaced by a mismatched assortment of comfy, battered couches. But in Peter Shaffer’s Amadeus, directed by Mary Bennett, the audience members aren’t the only ones on the couch; the story takes us into the mind of 18th-century composer Antonio Salieri, whose self-loathing fueled a bitter, futile rivalry with Mozart that lasted until the latter’s suspicious death.
The year is 1823, and some interesting gossip is making the rounds in Vienna: the elderly Antonio Salieri, former court composer to the emperor of Austria, claims to have murdered the musical genius Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart long ago. In the privacy of his apartment, Salieri summons the audience—his so-called “ghosts of the future"—to witness his crimes before he dies. Flashing back to 1781, we see Mozart as he first appears to Salieri: a vulgar, foppish man-child, capering upon the furniture like a purple-wigged chimpanzee. Speaking in rhyming nonsense and erupting in Tourettic tics, Mozart is an unsettling mix of immaturity and hubris, arrogantly dismissing his critics as fools who don’t understand him.
Unfortunately, Mozart has the talent to back it up. At a young age, Salieri devoted his life to serving God through music. But only now, listening to Mozart’s compositions, does Salieri realize that God has chosen to speak through a different vessel. Choked with bitter jealousy, Salieri vows to destroy his rival, pretending to be Mozart’s friend while secretly using his influence to ruin him.
Scott Beers, as Salieri, is a compelling and surprisingly likable villain—at first, anyway. His Salieri is driven by a humiliating recognition of his own mediocrity. Transitioning smoothly from the querulous infirmity of old age to the duplicitous cunning of a man bent on destruction, Beers gives a convincing and assured performance. David Richards plays Mozart almost too well, with unflaggingly manic energy. He is equally repulsive and charming. He means well, but is frustrated by society’s narrow-mindedness and obsession with propriety. Beers and Richards play well off each other, as in a funny scene where Mozart literally steals a march on Salieri. Tony DeGeiso and Sandy Brunell are also enjoyable as Salieri’s paid informers who slink about town gathering malicious gossip.
The biggest problem with Amadeus is its sheer length—about three and a half hours. Some of Salieri’s sordid scheming could have been cut out without loss; as it is, the pace is achingly slow, mainly due to Salieri’s running commentary on the action. Salieri is also prone to long, hand-wringing soliloquies about the conflict between mediocrity and genius, which caused breakouts of shifting, yawning, and quiet snores in the audience after the three-hour mark (perhaps those couches were too comfortable).
Amadeus offers gorgeous costumes, talented actors and plenty of wry humor. Unfortunately, the production is dragged down by the slow pace and excessive exposition. If you’ve got the time, Amadeus is an enjoyable show, but even the most patient viewer may wish for a fast-forward button.