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Dueling composers yield a delightful show in Great Lakes' Amadeus.

18th-century irrepressibles: Wolfgang and Costanze.
  • 18th-century irrepressibles: Wolfgang and Costanze.
If your mortal enemy were in the same profession as you, chances are you'd wish him every failure imaginable, so that you could wallow in all his attendant misery. The Germans call it schadenfreude, and this kind of malicious gloating can certainly have its piquant moments of pleasure.

But Peter Shaffer, author of Amadeus, now being presented by the Great Lakes Theater Festival, might advise you to be careful what you wish for. Indeed, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, the precocious composing genius, was a giant thorn in the side of Antonio Salieri, court composer to Joseph II, the emperor of Austria. And for quite a bit of this drama, which is a freely imagined recreation of that contentious relationship, Salieri's dreams do come true: Mozart's brilliant music is often greeted with a shrug by his patron and the public, while Salieri's comparatively mediocre tunes are hailed and richly rewarded. Yet this becomes Salieri's most exquisite torment, since only he appears able to recognize Mozart's genius -- an awareness he can't expunge from his mind.

This is just one of the fascinating meditations about art and morality that thread their way through this script, which is most well known for its cinematic version, featuring the cackling hyena laugh of Tom Hulce as Wolfgang and the malevolent glower of F. Murray Abraham's Salieri. Shaffer's writing often isn't as sharp as some of his thematic thrusts; he reduces the musically inspired Mozart to the 18th-century equivalent of an idiot savant, focusing relentlessly on the young man's adolescent sexual obsessions and propensity for baby talk. But the Great Lakes company does a splendid job of bringing this caricature and others down to something approaching human scale and finds some intriguing angles in the process.

In 1781 Vienna, the esteemed Salieri has heard of the young upstart composer, who's been writing scores since he was six years old, but the older man is not prepared for his first confrontation with Wolfie. The preternaturally randy fellow, now 25, arrives chasing a delightedly shrieking woman and bellowing his interest in some lascivious ass-licking -- either giving or taking; it's all the same to him. This is just the first of many social and ethical boundaries that Mozart crosses, as he becomes a member of the court and begins writing the music that Salieri believes is aided by heavenly assistance. (Indeed, the name Amadeus means "God's love.")

Some of Shaffer's finest descriptions emerge as Salieri battles these imponderables: How could God place such magnificent talent in a person so obviously devoid of moral goodness? His answer is that the deity is a "god of bargains . . . looking out at the world with dealer's eyes." And the bargain God has made with Mozart has left Salieri merely a mediocre bystander, showered with riches but doomed to musical oblivion. Driven by his hatred for God's maniacal joke, Salieri sets out to destroy Wolfgang and suppress his infinitely complex compositions.

In the linchpin role, Andrew May stows many of his theatrical pyrotechnics and crafts a cramped and hollow Salieri, a man whose personality has been almost entirely erased by his laser-focused dislike and untrammeled envy of Mozart. When he quarrels with God -- "You give me the desire and yet make me mute!" -- May's reproaches resonate with the bone-deep exhaustion of absolute agony. He is well matched by Ben Nordstrom's wildly careening yet believable Mozart, a man who, for all his excesses, still knows the score. Speaking of his job as a composer in a royal court filled with pompous windbags, he explains, "We are servants, and we've built a gigantic palace of sound to celebrate mediocre lives. But who has served whom? It's the music that will last, not their politics."

Adding some necessary fun to the proceedings are Scott Plate and Nicholas Koesters as the venticelli, Salieri's "little winds," who flit about the castle goosing the gossip mill and executing Valley Boy "whateverrr" sighs in perfect unison. Dougfred Miller is also amusing as the dithering emperor, although his catchphrase, "Well, there it is!", is repeated until it loses its lilt. George Roth as an Italian-spouting count and Kathryn Cherasaro as Mozart's wife, Costanze, create sharply defined characters -- especially in the latter's case, when she is being pursued by Salieri as he tries to dismantle the young composer's life.

This cast, under the deft direction of Gordon Reinhart, is so accomplished, one almost doesn't notice how unnecessarily padded and overlong the script is, landing at three hours with intermission. And even though there are small quibbles -- May's aged Salieri and Nordstrom's deathly ill Mozart seem a bit too similar to their younger and healthier selves -- the production never loses its focus on the human symphony at hand: the agony of one man's inescapable mediocrity and the personal devastation triggered by the other's monumental talent.

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