The very considerable local theatrical talent in Durham is in a constant state of flux with groups forming or re-forming for specific purposes from the same pool of players, designers and managers, who vagabond from stage to stage. Well-known local actor John Jimerson is now also managing director of Leviathan Theatre Company, and his company is currently presenting Peter Shaffer’s 1979 Amadeus, with Jimerson in the role of Antonio Salieri. As edited and staged by Leviathan and director Jaybird O’Berski, the play digs into some of art’s difficult realities even as it explores the fraught relations between two men struggling for success in 18th-century musical Vienna.
Poor Salieri, a Catholic who thinks he’s made a deal with God, is happy with his life as a court composer–until the spoiled, obscene young genius Amadeus Mozart blazes into town, and Salieri knows himself as a mediocre hack. He is, however, a hack with some power, and he thwarts Mozart at every turn while pretending to be his friend. Mozart, half-mad and alone, dies at 35 while writing his great Requiem; Salieri lives long with his guilt. Shaffer has taken some liberties with the the lives of these men. His story is not altogether about them, but uses them to expatiate on the disjunct between moral behavior and output of artistic greatness, and on the relationship between passion and art. It’s about the power of jealousy and the meanness of power; and, perhaps, about the fruitlessness of dealmaking with any god that would stoop to such a thing. Jimerson does a good job with both the man and the philosophizing, especially with the core speech about realizing the paucity of his work in relation to Mozart’s. In a number of places, he and O’Berski have placed the emphasis so that one is steered toward the big ideas and away from the bathos and comedy.
Mozart is played here by Jade Arnold, who sports thick white make-up, a surprising wig, and body-covering costumes (excellent costuming by Chelsea Kurtzman). Arnold has been impressive in previous shows, but here in full whiteface disguised as a white man behaving badly, he is astonishing. Whether the full disguise is to credit, or director O’Berski, or simply the natural growth of an actor, I don’t know, but Arnold just kicks it out here, abandoning previously observed mannerisms and tricks of timing to produce a fresh and heart-churning interpretation of this role. Naturally, considering the creative parties involved, he has to do some fairly ridiculous stuff on stage and make it matter. Prime example here is his straight-faced singing of a reconciliation song with his wife Costanze (Molly Forlines, voluptuous and nasty) derived from such a song in Mozart’s Le Nozze di Figaro–but done here like an alt-country duet. The singing was delightful, and the cognitive dissonance at the sight, even better.
The rest of the cast is strong. Tony Perucci is completely fabulous as Kasier Joseph II–so languid in his power and petulance, and so weighted by the enormity of his antler crown that he can barely move. Trevor Johnson, Liam O’Neill and Laurie Wolf each make an indelible impression as the counts and barons of the court. Salieri is attended by two “venticelli” played with mystery and alacrity by Caitlin Wells and Carly Prentiss Jones. Their make-up is particularly strong.
The visual aspects of this production take it far out of the ordinary. The extensive use of bold make-up and overstated wigs, sometimes augmented with intriguing masks by newcomer Wil Deedler, in combination with Kurtzman’s high-impact costuming, makes any set superfluous. The back wall of the small stage space at Common Ground Theatre has been removed to allow us to peer into the backstage murk, and to see the ladder Tony Perucci, as the Kaiser, must negotiate between his aerie and the stage floor. Other than that, there are a few props and chairs, and R.S. Buck’s smart lighting. The only technical deficiency is the sound. It is always difficult to hear in that space when it is undressed, but on the 29th there was some kind of feedback issue with some of the miked sound, and the equipment available to play Mozart’s music was inadequate to the task. However, when the actors spoke unmiked, they were all very clear, and used their voices to strong emotional effect.
I squeezed into the show by the skin of my teeth last Saturday–it sold out. I expect word-of-mouth will make tickets scarce for the remainder of the run (through April 12), so make reservations before going out to Common Ground for this imaginative revival of a multi-layered play.