What’s perhaps most odd about Amadeus, the play by Peter Shaffer written in 1981 and made into an Oscar-winning film in 1984, is that its title character (Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart) isn’t really the main focus. Most of the dialogue is spoken by Antonio Salieri, a contemporary of Mozart’s who, in this highly fictionalized version of their relationship, is jealous of Mozart’s skill and fame and actively works to destroy him.
“It’s not Mozart’s story, it’s Salieri’s,” says Kyle Barnette, who is directing a production of Amadeus with Charleston’s What If? Productions theater company. “But there’s no glory in calling a play Salieri when you can call it Amadeus. People are more familiar with that. Salieri has so many lines and these great monologues. It’s definitely told from Salieri’s point of view, experiencing this monster of a child. I kind of compare it to a fading pop star watching something new come on the scene and this person is suddenly like a relic. This was a raw, new approach to music, and Salieri’s bitterness against that is what really drives the story. Even though it takes place in the 18th century, it’s got such a modern feel in the way that Salieri has kind of got this catty, bitchiness about him, and Mozart’s got this unhinged party-boy quality in him.”
For What If?’s production of the play, Barnette decided to play up the angle of the contrasting personalities of the characters by casting two very different actors. Veteran player Brannen Daughtery plays Salieri, while the younger, less experienced Nathan Cooper plays Mozart. “Brannen has this regal calmness on stage, which I think is important for someone like Salieri,” Barnette says. “He’s a seasoned, trained actor, and Nathan is a young actor who started school at the College of Charleston for theater, but other than that he has no training. He’s kind of a naturalistic wild-child, so it works really well for the role of Mozart. The dichotomy between the two is very interesting. They’re both very focused, both very committed, but their own personalities do seem to seep into the characters they’re playing. Brannen’s sense of presence onstage has always been calm and controlled. And Nathan has this jumpy unhinged quality that works for Mozart.”
What If? is now in its seventh season, and Amadeus has been on Barnette’s wish-list for a while. “Whenever you’re preparing to present a season, you have 40 or so shows that you want to do, and you have to nail it down to four or five,” he says. “Amadeus has always been included, but for whatever reason it’s always gotten pushed off. We’ve always wondered how we were going to do that show. It’s so big. But last year we did Cabaret in the same space, and found out that you can take a big show and put it in a small space and still tell the same story. So we decided to do Amadeus this year after the success of Cabaret.”
Barnette says his attraction to the piece is less theatrical than musical, even if the music he’s talking about is in dialogue form. “My background is in classical music,” he says. “I play cello and standup bass. I was really drawn to the way the story is told because it’s written like a piece of music. It’s very fluid, the way the characters speak to each other, the way a scene flows into another scene. It’s like one long flow of music going from one scene to the next. It goes to many different locations but it’s so beautifully written that it doesn’t confuse you.”
Perhaps creating some confusion is the fact that Shaffer has revised the play several times since its initial publication, mostly concentrating on minor dialogue tweaks and adding scene description — a lot of scene description. “I’d done this show years ago as an actor working from the third or fourth revision of the script,” Barnette says. “So when we first decided to do this show, it was that revised version of the script that we were working with. It’s funny because it offers what most scripts don’t: ‘This set piece looks like this, this gold thing appears here.’ Of course, that’s dictated for a much larger, big-scale production if you have all the money in the world. Ours obviously has a much more reduced budget and space. So while we’re taking the words from the updated version, we put our own twist on it. It’s a very minimalistic approach.”
How minimalistic? Apparently chairs play a role, and that’s about it. “When you’re doing a show in a smaller theater, you’re not going to have a huge brocade and sets with gold filament rising up to the sky,” he says. “So we’ve consulted with our set and costume designer to find a way to tell the same story, in a smaller space which is going to be really cool. We’re doing it with projections and a lot of chairs. Chairs play a big part in this show. They play a big part in the way we produced the scenes and the set. Same story, though.”