For his play "Amadeus," Peter Shaffer borrowed tools from the kit of another popular playwright, a fellow named Shakespeare. He named a play for a character it isn't primarily about, he told his tale with the aid of a frame, and he never let the facts get in the way of a good story.
It is 1823, and the Italian composer to the Austrian Court, Antonio Salieri (Paul R. Jones in the new production that opened Friday at Camelot Theatre in Talent, directed by Livia Genise), is near death. With the end in view, he is confessing to the audience the details of the secret, dirty war he waged against Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart in the 1780s.
"Amadeus" is Salieri's story, and the entire flashback or memory play is his last composition. Is Salieri a reliable narrator? Did he actually poison Mozart (Max Gutfreund), or is this all the ravings of a sick old man?
Just as rumors fly in court-obsessed Viennese society, actors' loud whispers of "Salieri, Salieri, Salieri" fly around the theater, underscoring the power of gossip, the shrouds of doubt.
While there was no doubt rivalry between the real Mozart and Salieri, the official composer to Emperor Joseph II, there is little evidence that it involved a bitter hatred unto death, let alone murder. Likewise, the portrait of Mozart as a sort of idiot savant is doubtless overdrawn.
No matter. As Salieri takes us back to 1781, Jones' shaky, old man's treble with its 1823 pipes and whistles turns again to a big manly voice. We meet Mozart, a former child prodigy, now 25, scrabbling about on all fours in pursuit of his wife, Constanze (Grace Peets), in a moment of baby-talking sex play, pretending to be a cat to the mouse of Constanze, who is also on all fours.
We are simultaneously amused and horrified along with Salieri. With his goofiness and his wig, Mozart looks alarmingly like Harpo Marx.
For those who haven't seen the play or the popular 1984 film, a quick refresher. Salieri's world is rocked as he instantly recognizes Mozart's towering talent. Faced with music that sounds like "the voice of God," Salieri feels himself revealed as a mediocrity. How could God bestow such sublime gifts on an uncouth twit while giving him, the great Salieri, only a journeyman's talent?
If God is an ironist, then Salieri has a war not only with Mozart but with God. He raves against the deity as he sabotages Mozart's chance of getting important assignments from the haughty if clueless Joseph (Jack Seybold). The emperor provides moments of comic relief, summing up his reaction to a new Mozart composition by saying, "too many notes" and responding to every edgy situation by saying, "Well, there it is."
When some court crumb does come Mozart's way in spite of fierce opposition by Salieri, the court composer falsely takes credit in Mozart's eyes, as cynical as a politician. And Salieri gets more vicious as he goes.
Gutfreund, a student at Southern Oregon University, is tasked with making a believable man out of the infantile, vulgar, gibberish-spouting, brilliant, annoying enfant terrible that is Shaffer's creation. He succeeds more often than not, tossing off stanzas of nonchalant genius he punctuates with donkey-like brayings. The character's cartoonishness fades as the man begins to suffer bitterly as a result of the treachery of his nemesis.
It is a strange spectacle to see a genius ranting against the outmoded "gods and heroes" opera of the day and arguing for an art about the passions of real people, then to realize this visionary of transformative power is so poor he has not enough to eat. The role is a challenge for a young actor, but Gutfreund endows it with shadings, especially in the second act.
But the play belongs to Salieri, and it is a bravura performance by Jones. He plays Salieri not as a mustache-twirler but as man losing his soul. To wind up mano-a-mano with the composer of "Cosi Fan Tutte," "Don Giovanni," "The Marriage of Figaro" and "The Magic Flute" was a cruel fate to be sure.
With the character's intelligence and razor humor, Jones invites us to identify with Salieri, and there is perhaps a dark side of us that, at least early on, starts to respond if we are honest enough to admit it. But his obsession becomes all-consuming, enveloping both composers. Part of the play's cleverness is that it becomes clear Salieri is describing unspeakable horrors in a matter-of-fact, almost charming, way.
Paul Flowers' spare, impressionistic set serves as both the present and the past of Salieri's memory, and Genise has peopled the play with able supporting characters. She says she considered staging it with live musicians but lacked the physical space. Although it's not a musical, the play features recorded passages from Mozart's works.
"Amadeus" is three hours but feels shorter. It's not a spoiler to say that if Mozart doesn't get his due in his lifetime, Salieri's much-sought atonement will likewise prove elusive. Well, there it is.
Bill Varble writes about arts and entertainment for the Mail Tribune. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.