Tony Amendola (top) and Rafael Goldstein in "Amadeus." Photo by Aaron Rumley
North Coast Repertory Theatre has opened its 38th season with a resounding production of Peter Shaffer’s drama Amadeus, the acclaimed 1979 play about the Imperial Kappelmeister of Vienna, Antonio Salieri, and his envy of young Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. As written by Shaffer, it was an envy that quickly turned toxic and quite possibly lethal. Amadeus went on five years later to become an Oscar-winning film that spread this theory to the larger public. (Officially, Mozart was said to have died, at 35 years old, from “severe military fever.”)
The character of Salieri is the crucial one in Amadeus, which is told in flashback from his point of view, beginning in a wheelchair as an old man stretching back to his 30s when Mozart was an amazing prodigy but also an irritatingly precocious young man. At North Coast Rep, the role of Salieri is filled with towering commitment and intensity by Tony Amendola, who brings out all of the calculating coldness the playwright instilled in the man (and which may well have existed). So potent is Amendola’s performance that it swamps a genuinely sensitive one by Rafael Goldstein as Mozart. But that is the nature of the play itself. Shaffer’s Mozart possesses tremendous charisma and childlike playfulness – and a little arrogance, too – but he proves no match as an adversary to Salieri.
There’s a grim inevitability to the sinister machinations of Salieri in North Coast Rep’s production. The impudent wackiness of Mozart, unlike in the film version, never dilutes the intensity of the story. Much credit for this consistency of mood and tenor must go to director Richard Baird and to a supporting ensemble that doesn’t overplay its collective hand. Among that supporting cast is Kathryn Tkel, whose turn as Mozart’s wife Constanze is multifaceted and moving.
Exits and entrances are handled gracefully on a sparse set designed by Marty Burnett. Elisa Benzoni’s late 18th-century/early 19th century costumes highlight the pretensions of the court of Vienna while also emphasizing the vast difference in the staid Salieri’s and impetuous Mozart’s personalities.
Forty years after its debut onstage, Amadeus continues to enthrall and mystify. (Review originally published in San Diego CityBeat on 9/18/19.)
David L. Coddon is a Southern California theater critic.