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Rock me Salieri 

Shakespeare festival's lush Amadeus strikes some discordant notes

Once the most renowned composer in Europe, Antonio Salieri has found fresh fame as one of the most vivid villains of the modern theater. In his play Amadeus, Peter Shaffer imagines Salieri as an overpraised poser, jealous of the effortless if unrecognized brilliance of his contemporary, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart.

The Georgia Shakespeare Festival begins its 16th season with the play, and though Shaffer by no means equals Shakespeare, Amadeus offers a very worthy and enduring portrait of the dichotomy between genius and mediocrity. Director Karen Robinson orchestrates a lush and shadowy show, although the two leading actors strike both sublime and discordant notes.

No evidence exists that Salieri poisoned Mozart or plotted his murder, but he did confess to it in his old age, and the play meets the elderly composer (John Ammerman) on what he claims is the last night of his life. Addressing the audience as "ghosts of the future," he reveals how he began his career piously approaching music as a means of glorifying God. He becomes Austria's court composer but his beliefs are shaken when he discovers genuine inspiration in the work of infantile Mozart (James Andrew Butz). "Finished as most music is never finished," Mozart's compositions make a mockery of Salieri's efforts.

He conspires against Mozart as a means of avenging himself against God, and as Mozart's music languishes, Salieri knows all too well that he may be the only one who appreciates its brilliance. Ammerman's best moments find him listening to Mozart compositions and responding with both exaltation at its beauty and self-hatred that he himself can't create such sounds. Often, though the actor plays the role like a dastardly evildoer of pure melodrama, all but gnawing his lines (especially those in Italian), in a way that seems more affected than natural.

Mozart is written as "an obscene child," but Butz makes him so flippant and frivolous he comes across like a giddy, hyperactive schoolgirl. Butz becomes less annoying the more we get to see him. When facing hardships, he's sympathetically confused and baffled at the workings of the adult world. The actor captures Mozart's self-righteousness, angrily confronting palace courtiers with their fear of innovation and pro-Italian biases. Rob Cleveland, Tim McDonough and Allen O'Reilly fittingly play the hidebound members of the musical establishment, although they get to do little but tut-tut Mozart.

Amadeus' film adaptation may be superior to the stage play, proving more dramatically satisfying while taking further liberties with the historic record (like the literal confession that frames the film). The play relies on unwieldy contrivances, like having Salieri overhear conversations or his weird evocation of the audience at the beginning. The climactic confrontation doesn't match the movie's deathbed dictation of the Requiem, but the play does have Salieri unmasked, not unlike the Phantom of the Opera.

It's still an entertaining and thought-provoking play, displaying an almost musical fondness for repeating key lines: "I don't believe it!" "There it is," "Fetes and fireworks!" and the well-known "Too many notes." Chris Kayser and Joe Knezevich amusingly and overlappingly play Salieri's foppish rumor-mongers whom he calls the "Venticelli" and relies upon to provide him with gossip. Napoleonic-statured Jonathan Davis brings both comedy and gravitas to Emperor Joseph II, and Jessie Andary as Mozart's wife combines bawdiness and sensitivity.

Rochelle Barker's set includes three hanging panels where projected images range from bookshelves to Viennese buildings to the famed imposing figure from the Amadeus poster art, fluidly conveying the changes of setting and content. And Brian Kettler's sound design thankfully lives up to the material -- nothing's worse than Amadeus with bad sound.

Despite its imperfections, GSF's Amadeus measures up to the play's goal as a kind of masterpiece of music appreciation. The play shouldn't be considered a substitute for seeing an actual Mozart symphony or opera in concert, but it does offer a stirring reminder of what separates a genius from the rest of the world.

Amadeus will play in repertory through Aug. 12 at the Georgia Shakespeare Festival, 4484 Peachtree Road, with performances Tues.-Sat. at 8 p.m. and Sun. at 2 and 8 p.m. $20-$26.50. 404-264-0020.

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