For Pioneer Theatre Company’s 2004-05 season, artistic director Charles Morey made something of a devil’s bargain. While PTC’s seasons have generally been a mix of classics and crowd-pleasers on the one hand and less-widely-known works on the other, this lineup was packed with recognizable names—so recognizable that the material for every one of them has, in some form or fashion, already been turned into a movie. On the plus side of such an approach, plenty of your marketing is done for you, and you get built-in audiences. And on the down side, you run the risk of one interpretation of the material being so familiar that an alternate version is jarring.
The company escaped such comparisons when dealing with the likes of Ten Little Indians and The Importance of Being Earnest, where no single mass-media take on the material has become definitive in the popular consciousness. But when you’re dealing with Peter Shaffer’s Amadeus—transformed into an Academy Award-winning film in 1984—it’s much harder to tune out what has come before. And it’s hard to ignore that in many crucial ways, Shaffer’s adaptation of his play to the screen was … well, simply better.
Not that the stage version is any slouch. It’s still the compelling tale of composer Antonio Salieri (Greg Thornton) reflecting as an infirm septuagenarian on his life in 1780s Vienna, and his interaction with the crude but immensely talented Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (Tim Altmeyer). It still touches on the clash between Salieri’s position of prominence in the court of Emperor Joseph II (Noble Shropshire) and his awareness that his ability pales in comparison to that of his young rival. And it still finds potent material in the disintegration of Salieri’s devotion to God in the face of his belief that Mozart—“beloved of God,” as his middle name translates—had been chosen over himself as a musical messenger of heaven on earth.
It’s also certainly true that PTC’s production makes the most of those elements unique to a stage presentation of the material. Peter Harrison—creator of many stunning PTC sets over the years, including 2003’s Copenhagen—gives the single massive hall the feel of swallowing yet trapping the characters, its grid backdrop like a jail cell in the distance. Morey himself directs with a smooth flow between scenes, employing Bob Jared’s lighting for effect without ever making it obtrusive. As a stage production—a few noteworthy opening night difficulties with both the volume of the music and its rhythm with the dialogue notwithstanding—Amadeus impresses in its technical achievement.
As drama, however, this version sometimes feels like a test run for the more fully fleshed-out film’s screenplay. Salieri’s oath to offer God his chastity in exchange for musical ability doesn’t seem quite so affecting when he has a wife (in-name-only though the marriage might be). Absent from the stage version is a scene of Mozart mocking Salieri’s stilted style in a manner that fuels Salieri’s rage; missing also is the climactic sequence of a dying Mozart dictating his requiem Mass. Every theme and character is deepened on screen, where Shaffer and director Milos Forman found another gear of operatic grandeur.
Perhaps it seems unfair to pick on all the things this Amadeus is not in relation to its screen cousin. It is noteworthy that the relationship between Mozart and his wife Constanze (Rachel Fowler) is more effectively developed here, and that the central performances by Thornton and Altmeyer stake out strong, unique takes on their characters. But it’s foolish to ignore what a risky business it is setting up a comparison between a very good play and an interpretation that became transcendent. Up next for PTC is West Side Story. We’ll see if they can pass yet another screen test.
AMADEUS Pioneer Theatre Company, 300 S. 1400 East, 581-6961. Through April 9