Playwright Peter Shaffer started out in life as a composer. That's why his plays are written like pieces of music and should be treated as such.
That's also why his fascination with the immense gap between genius and mediocrity gave birth to "Amadeus," his apocryphal fable detailing Antonio Salieri's avowed destruction of rival Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart.
Shaffer isn't historically serious, but he is ideologically. "Amadeus," particularly in this production at Rancho Santiago College, is a double concerto, the soloists being Brian Kojac as musical bureaucrat Salieri and Sean McNall as high-strung genius Mozart.
Kojac easily and seamlessly bridges the age difference between the aged Salieri's telling the story in 1823 and the 31-year-old court composer in 1781 confronting his own insufficiencies. And Kojac gives Salieri an intelligent humor often lacking in portrayals of the duplicitous character at the Court of Joseph II of Austria. He isn't afraid to highlight his character's more pleasant qualities along with his evil, and it gives his Salieri a luminous humanity.
McNall is the perfect Mozart to match this Salieri. The giggling, scatological misfit that Mozart in many ways actually was is not a difficult role, but McNall informs his characterization with enough inventive detail to give it a forthright reality. In his portrait, Mozart's giggle is not just salacious. From the beginning, it is like a nervous tic that erupts unconsciously when Mozart is uncomfortable or feels cornered.
This Mozart seems aware that he is trapped in his own personality but hasn't the will to escape. The duet between Kojac and McNall is taut, full of melody, and echoes the somber notes of disaster that befall Salieri and Mozart.
As sometimes happens at concerts, the soloists are not as well-supported by the orchestra, in this case the supporting cast under the direction of Chuck Ketter. Though various performances ring true, Ketter hasn't captured the sweep and shadings of Shaffer's dramatic score.
His Venicelli (Catherine Wise, Gabriel Gonzales, Rebekah Bourne and Adrian G. D. Lopez), the whispering "little winds" who follow Salieri through his life, are not nearly conspiratorial enough, too matter of fact and bland. There is little tone of elitism to his court scenes; many in the supporting cast seem little more than chess pieces.
Sandra Borner (Salieri's opaque wife), Cassie Cole (Cavalieri, his morally ambiguous student and a later star) and Shawna Bonaime (Mozart's long-suffering survivor of a wife) are excellent, even if they are not as integrated as they could be into Shaffer's score.
William Russey, Brandon Crane and Ed Bucsko are also very good as the courtiers who first accept and later abandon the doomed Mozart. Kim Stephen Kiedrowski as Emperor Joseph has the right regal tone but seems to be wearing it rather than being it.
* "Amadeus," Phillips Hall Theatre, Rancho Santiago College, 1530 W. 17th St., Santa Ana. Tonight and Saturday, 8 p.m.; Sunday, 2:30 p.m. Ends Sunday. $10. (714) 564-5661. Running time: 2 hours, 40 minutes.
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Brian Kojac: Antonio Salieri
Sean McNall: Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart
Shawna Bonaime: Constanze Weber
Kim Stephen: Kiedrowski Emperor Joseph II
William Russey: Johann Von Strack
Brando Crane: Count Orsini-Rosenberg
Ed Bucsko: Baron Van Swieten
Sandra Borner: Teresa Salieri
Cassie Cole: Katherina Cavalieri
Catherine Wise: One of the Venicelli
Gabriel Gonzalez: One of the Venicelli
Rebekah Bourne: One of the Venicelli
Adrian G.D. Lopez: One of the Venicelli
A Rancho Santiago College Theatre Department production of Peter Shaffer's drama. Directed by Chuck Ketter. Scenic design: Tim Mueller. Lighting design: D. Silvio Volonte. Costume design: Wilma Mickler-Sears. Sound design: Justus Matthews. Makeup design: Barbara Matthews. Stage manager: Kristen Walters.