From its sleekly stunning set to its phenomenally talented cast, Round House Theatre’s new production of Peter Shaffer’s Amadeus is first-class all the way. It’s a visceral, enthralling evening of theater, an absolute must-see for any avid area theatergoer and proof positive that you no longer have to take the Acela Express to New York to find a definitive production.
Amadeus, of course, is the original stage play that eventually became the remarkably popular 1984 Milos Forman film that garnered Academy Award nominations for both F. Murray Abraham and Tom Hulce (although only Abraham won). Both the play and the film revolve around an emotionally heightened plot that’s concerned with the complex rivalry of Antonio Salieri—court composer to the Habsburg Emperor of Austria, Joseph II—and upstart composer and former child prodigy Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart.
In whatever format, Amadeus presents an exaggerated take on the relationship between the two composers. They were rivals, yes, and Salieri probably did Mozart’s career no particular favors. But there’s no evidence that he actually cased Mozart’s downfall and eventual death.
But, in heightening the antagonism between a scheming Salieri and a nutty, potty-mouthed, yet oddly endearing Mozart, Shaffer succeeded in creating a compelling, highly intellectual drama that pursues a number of interesting threads. Chief among them? Why should a well-organized, sophisticated, and widely admired court composer be eclipsed by a sloppy, seemingly superficial local kid who just happens to have been blessed with genius?
In point of fact, Salieri was actually quite a good composer. After over a century of nearly complete neglect, the success of the film “Amadeus” reawakened an interest in Salieri’s work, and excellent recordings were made by a number of European orchestras. In 2004, the Wolf Trap Opera even mounted a production of his charming opera Falstaff, to the delight of local patrons.
But the problem is, as the French might say, je ne sais quois. Salieri’s music is very good. But Mozart reaches higher to achieve the sublime. Genius is a random thing, often unfairly allocated. (Note the bizarre career of the late American chess grandmaster Bobby Fischer, for example.) What’s a sharp, competent competitor to do in the face of it?
In Amadeus, Salieri arrives at the unpleasant—and unfair—conclusion that after genius, all is mediocrity, including his own work. In an attempt to alter the equation, Salieri attempts to destroy Mozart and with him, his genius. But in the end, as Salieri sinks into an embittered old age, it is Mozart’s compositions that are still being performed while Salieri’s have begun to slide into the dustbin of history.
Thus, Amadeus becomes a meditation on competence vs. genius, divine inspiration vs. mediocrity, and temporal power vs. cosmic justice. Shaffer wraps it all into a vibrant, compelling drama featuring all-too-human characters engaged, wittingly or unwittingly, in a battle for relevance. You love his over-the-top idiot savant Mozart, yet are appalled by Mozart’s complete lack of common sense. You despise Salieri’s cold self-centeredness, but also sympathize with his impossible dilemma.
All of this, and more, comes out in this wonderful Round House production.
The first thing you notice upon entering Round House’s Bethesda theater is the stark magnificence of Amadeus’ massive set, the brilliant creation of scenic designer James Kronzer. A concept that simultaneously conjures up a royal Great Hall and a rather stark cathedral, it’s distinguished by massive faux-marble columns, high round windows, and grand entranceways, flanked to the sides and rear by bank upon banks of flickering red votive lights, a staple of older Catholic houses of worship.
From a purely historical standpoint, the set depicts with some accuracy the era in which the play is set, the late 18th century. Although he possessed the additional title of “Holy Roman Emperor,” Joseph II was a creature of the Enlightenment and possessed Protestant tendencies that weren’t too well concealed. He systematically usurped feudal church lands and privileges and pushed to remove the abundance of statuary from existing Catholic churches.
The Round House set, devoid of statues entirely, would seem to reflect Joseph’s wishes in this regard, replacing the imagery of faith with simpler spaces more hospitable to a rational, temporal world. But symbolically, the set is an arena in which the divinely inspired Mozart fights a losing battle against the cynical but practical politics of his rival, Salieri.
Bill Black’s lavish, period-authentic costuming rounds out the visual conceit, contrasting the in-crowd’s impeccable attire with Mozart’s slapdash fashions, no doubt purchased off the racks of an 18th century Syms emporium with the composer’s last pfennig or two.
Entrances and exits dramatically fade to and from black, courtesy of Matthew Richards’ lighting schemes. Even the audience jumps into the picture, here, suddenly illuminated early in Act I as the aging Salieri takes them into his confidence, letting them in on the inside scoop.
Even sound design, courtesy of Matthew M. Neilson, comes into play, re-creating the eerie, decaying echoes of a vacant cathedral whenever the enraged Salieri challenges the fairness and justice of the Divine.
All this visual and atmospheric wonder would be for naught, of course, if Round House had not carefully selected the right players to bring its visual tapestry to life. Happily, under the decisive and, well, enlightened directorship of Mark Ramont, the cast for this production of Amadeus admirably fits the bill, especially the two leads who, if there’s any justice, will be top contenders for an upcoming Helen Hayes Award.
Chief among them is veteran actor Edward Gero who stars in the massive role of Antonio Salieri. We’ve seen Gero in many roles over the years. This could very well be his finest performance to date.
The key to bringing Shaffer’s Salieri to life is playing him as a credible villain while, at the same time, generating genuine sympathy for the cosmic hopelessness of his dilemma. Clearly, whether by means of sociopolitical skill or compositional excellence, Salieri is a composer and musician to be reckoned with, a major figure of his times. And yet he is dwarfed and diminished, at least in his own eyes, by the meteoric and seemingly undeserved talent of Mozart, tipping his once-moral spirit into the darker realms of jealousy, intrigue, villainy, and blasphemy.
Gero at all times emanates the seething psyche of this tortured Salieri, making us hate him and sympathize with him at all times, even during his oafish, painfully botched and failed seduction of Mozart’s young wife, Constanze. Gero literally channels this conception of Salieri. His powerful characterization of Salieri’s tortured soul energizes this production but does not dominate it at the expense of the other players. It’s showy, intelligent, and gracious at the same time, the kind of performance where superlatives simply don’t suffice.
It’s tough to be a good Salieri, however, without a loopy, divinely inspired madman—Mozart—to play against. Here, Gero is blessed by Sasha Olinick, whose portrayal of Mozart as a yammering, awkward, hopelessly vulgar child prodigy in adult clothing is near letter-perfect. You pull for Olinick’s hapless young genius even as you cringe during his wildly inappropriate and nearly constant references to impolite bodily functions and his adolescent rejection of authority.
Olinick’s Mozart is far from a saint. His egotism is, if anything, worse than Salieri’s. But, unlike Salieri, he doesn’t know how to score points politely and so succeeds in losing nearly every round, more than half the time not even realizing he’s engaged in a fight to the finish.
Olinick’s performance benefits as much from his skill in physical comedy as it does from his acting chops. Things get lively on stage when he’s around. Even if you’ve seen the play or the movie before, Olinick’s tumbling exits and entrances are nearly always a hilarious shock. Even though he’s on stage far less than Salieri, you can feel the presence of his spirit throughout and still experience a fresh frisson at every entrance. Contrariwise, you can feel the energy sag and drain away near the close of the play as Mozart’s once-mighty life force begins to ebb.
In some ways, Amadeus is really a two-person play. Gero and Olinick certainly fit the bill here, feeding off one another and keeping the energy flowing from start to finish. But considerable richness and detail are added to the mix by the remaining cast members. They help ground this production in its historical context, making the total greater than the sum of its parts.
Chief among these characters is the always-hovering figure of Emperor Joseph II, played perfectly here by Floyd King. Unconsciously supercilious yet crisp and to the point—unlike the spontaneously undisciplined Mozart—King’s Emperor emanates a certain royal shallowness. And yet he also contributes a heavy dose of the rational. Joseph was not one to mince words or betray inner emotions. He conveys his thoughts like bullet points in a PowerPoint presentation, creating a world tailor-made for the subtleties of a scheming Salieri but completely inhospitable to the ways of an erratic genius like Mozart.
In smaller but key roles, Caroline Mahoney easily conveys the giddy cluelessness of diva Katherina Cavalieri; Sabrina Mandell provides a picture-perfect etching of Salieri’s icy wife, Teresa; Steven Carpenter beautifully sketches out the fraying patience of Baron Gottfried over many scenes; Jefferson Russell is perfect as the oily Count Franz Orsini-Rosenberg; and Laura C. Harris couldn’t be better as Constanze Mozart, the airheaded wife of the composer who nonetheless is possessed of a firm if addle-headed sense of her own dignity.
The production is embellished appropriately with background music of both Mozart and Salieri. The only weakness here is the disconnect that occurs during a brief lip-synch opera scene “sung” by Katherina. It doesn’t really work. But it’s a minor matter in the scheme of things.
In the final analysis it’s three cheers for the Round House Theatre’s Amadeus. It’s a simply awesome production you’ll remember for years to come.
by Peter Shaffer
Directed by Mark Ramont
Produced by Round House Theatre
Reviewed by Terry Ponick
Running time: Two hours and forty-five minutes including intermission
- Larry Bangs . Montgomery Gazette
- Brett Abelman . DCist
- Nelson Pressley . Washington Post
- Sophie Gilbert . Washingtonian
- Bob Anthony . AllArtsReview4You