Good, evil take center stage in Wilkes’ theater production ‘Amadeus’

Bill Thomas, Arts & Entertainment Editor

Don’t be fooled. The title of the Wilkes University Theatre Department’s latest production may be called “Amadeus,” but the real driving force of this celebrated period piece isn’t actually famed composer Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. Rather, it’s one of his contemporaries, a man many will be less familiar with: Antonio Salieri.

“The character of Salieri is never offstage,” Teresa Fallon, Wilkes’ director of theater and the stage director for “Amadeus,” explained. “This is basically a memory-play for him. It’s Salieri’s memories of Mozart, who he feels has destroyed his peace of mind.”

Sophomore English and theater arts major Jamie Alderiso and junior theater arts major Luke Brady are taking on the roles of Salieri and Mozart, respectively.

Presenting a fictionalized version of Mozart’s life, the Tony Award-winning play, written by Peter Shaffer, introduces us to a Mozart very different from the image most people may have in their heads. Instead of the stuffy, po-faced man of stone busts and painted portraits, the Mozart that Brady portrays is a jovial, obnoxious eccentric with limited social skills.

“The burden of genius is what Mozart has to deal with,” Fallon said. “His abilities set him apart from everyone, which makes it hard for him to understand other people and for other people to understand him. He sees things in another way.”

Mozart’s rival, Salieri, is another composer whose own musical mediocrity leads him to spitefully sabotage Mozart’s life. The relationship between the two characters is the crux of the play, which proves itself more complex than a simple black-and-white tale of bitter enemies.

“Their relationship is a professional relationship poisoned by envy on Salieri’s part,” Fallon said. “He’s very crafty. With the mask of friendship, he lures Mozart to his own destruction.

“It’s a complicated relationship, because at the same time, he’s the only person who understands Mozart’s music. So it’s this strange love-hate relationship. Salieri loves Mozart’s music and is amazed at his talent, but hates him for having it.”

Fallon described both Brady and Alderiso as “grabbing their parts with gusto,” and remarked that Alderiso, in particular, has thrown himself into the character.

“There’s no amount of overdoing it for him,” she said. “He’s always delving deeper and deeper. “

For Alderiso, all that delving has helped him dig up nuggets of psychological and emotional gold. The more the actor has  come to understand Salieri, the more he’s come to realize just how relatable the character actually is.

“You hate him one minute and then the next minute you feel really bad for him,” Alderiso said. “He gets what Mozart gets. He gets the art of music and why music is important to humanity, but he can’t contribute the kind of masterpieces that Mozart can do just off the top of his head. That gnaws at Salieri forever. No matter how hard he tries, he just doesn’t have that in him.”

Preparing to play such a dark and multifaceted personality hasn’t been easy for Alderiso, who called it the hardest role he’s yet played. It’s not just the layered characterization or the start-to-finish, nonstop stage-time that’s pushing the actor to his limits, however. Salieri’s penchant for breaking the fourth wall is also putting his skills to the test.

“As an actor, it’s challenging because I have to know when to switch. I’ll be in the middle of a conversation with Mozart then suddenly stop, turn to the audience and say ‘Did he just say that to me?” Then I have to snap right back to Mozart,” Alderiso said.

“A lot of Peter Schaffer’s work is like this, where the main character is almost in a session with his or her shrink, and the audience is the shrink.”

When it comes to the stage, it seems there’s never any shortage of challenges. A bout of pharyngitis recently sidelined Alderiso for a few days and weakened his voice. For Fallon, though, that particular speed bump has barely registered a blip on the radar.

For her, a more pressing obstacle has been the fact that the “Amadeus” production period is trying to weave itself around the college’s spring and Easter breaks.

“There’s always something that happens that you need to deal with. Theater is not the kind occupation where what you expect to happen happens every day,” she said. “As a matter of fact, it makes you stronger. You get a little creative spark when you have an obstacle that you have to overcome. The show goes on.”

Taking such complications in stride, Fallon and Alderiso both believe that “Amadeus” has the potential to distinguish itself as a truly standout department production. The key to the story’s power, Alderiso opined, is its fully fleshed-out principal characters, as well as the universal sense of duality they represent.

“Mozart and Salieri are the epitome of the exact opposites of each other. Mozart holds nothing back. He’s a genius, but he’s not very socially intelligent. We all have moments when we feel like we’re doing something really great but the world doesn’t understand us. Meanwhile, Salieri is the average guy. He works hard to get some recognition, but Mozart comes in and doesn’t have to try at all,” Alderiso explained.

“There’s a little bit of each of them in everyone. They represent the eternal conflict in us all.”

“Amadeus” will run in the Dorothy Dickson Darte Center, at 8 p.m. on Thursday, Friday and Saturday, April 12, 13 and 14, and 2 p.m. on Sunday, April 15. Tickets are $15 general admission and $5 students and senior citizens, but are free for those with a valid Wilkes ID.