There were, at various points, half a dozen versions of Peter Shaffer’s Amadeus floating around. The playwright was trying to square the circle and make his metaphorical work about the tragic view of sublimity from the world of mediocrity better fit the record of musicological history.
He never did. He never could. He didn’t need to. It’s a play — and 40 years after its premiere, still a brilliant if somewhat bloated one.
I was fortunate enough to see it in its first incarnation, the 1980 American premiere in D.C. at the National Theatre with the memorably maniacal Tim Curry as Mozart and the brain-washingly commanding Ian McKellen in the central role of Salieri. Along with a revival of The King and I, with Yul Brynner, Arena Stage’s production of Sam Shepard’s Curse of the Starving Class, and the Kennedy Center’s production of Tom Stoppard’s Jumpers, it was among the most powerful formative stage performances of my life.
The Italian-born Vienna court composer Salieri, evidence suggests, did not poison Mozart. He probably didn’t even poison Mozart’s career. The 35-year-old savant may have died of syphilis, mercury treatments, rheumatic fever, kidney failure, infection from bloodletting, trichinosis from undercooked pork, or strep. None of those would have made for a very good play, though, would they?
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The only poison Salieri administered, in all probability, was the poison he himself ingested: jealousy. That would explain the historically accurate babbling of a frail, senile elderly Salieri who saw — and more importantly heard — immortality in Mozart while craving it for himself. It is that likely fundamental truth where Shaffer’s imaginings probably always best intersected with the historical record. And there too where the work pierces the heart of each audience member who has glimpsed sublimity and felt that inevitable, painful distance from it. In other words, all of us.
The Folger Theatre’s current production does honor to this work’s ambition and its illustrious past.
Ian Merill Peakes, albeit with one tiny stumble Monday night, held us happily captive as a childishly sweet-scarfing Salieri who confides in future generations the way his young court-rival genius, Mozart, curdled Salieri’s heart and activated his Machiavellian soul. As the elderly Salieri, Peakes coerces us into a sympathetic intimacy, painfully recalling the passive-aggressive evils of his court politics. As the younger Salieri, in his prime, Peakes brims with an Iago-like Janus-faced vitality, tripping up the naive, infantile, course-tongued new kid in town. A staunch Catholic turned cynic, Salieri realizes, watching the celestially gifted young knave from Salzburg, that “goodness is nothing in the furnace of art.”
Amadeus closes December 22, 2019. Details and tickets
It would be all too easy, in the role of Mozart, to be overcome by the memory of giddy renditions by Curry on stage and Tom Hulce in Milos Forman’s acclaimed 1984 film. Samuel Adams, fortunately, has the fortitude and the talent to find his own way in the role. He delivers the part’s signature giddy giggles in his own thoughtfully calibrated measure. But it’s in the vulnerable and despondent moments that he really inhabits the part. As husband, as a Mason, as court politician, he is hopeless. Only in sacrificing himself to his bipolar muse, which dictates intoxicating operatic love quartets one moment and a chilling requiem the next, does the one-time delinquent toast of Europe still rule the world.
As Mozart’s wife, Constanze, the comely and tough Lilli Hokama conveys the wondrous, hopeless task of trying to tether a titan’s otherworldly gifts to this all too petty earth.
Tony Cisek’s set is ingenious, bracketing the action with diagonal bars suspended from decorative curlicues atop a stage painted in royal swirls. As Max Doolittle’s lighting ranges from the fragile luminescence of the elderly Salieri’s apartment to the golden luster of Emperor Joseph II’s court, those bars suggest the strings of a harp, piano, or violin, the stability of a musical staff, a gilded cage, the imprisonment of poverty, a descent to the oblivion of anonymity, or the ascent to the glory of immortality. Mariah Anzaldo Hale’s fabulous costumes are a delectable 18th-century sensation.
“You’ve also got a wonderful play. You’ve got, in part, a comedy — I call it a revenge comedy.” – Interview with Director Richard Clifford
The first act sags a bit under the confessional adipose of the script, but, over all, Richard Clifford’s direction delivers the intimate thrill of this intoxicating intellectual seance. Mediocrity might have gnawed at Shaffer, but transcendence drew him because it knew him. Let others fawn on biographical accuracy. His Amadeus remains a gift.
Amadeus by Peter Shaffer, directed by Richard Clifford, at Folger Theatre through December 22. Scenic design by Tony Cisek, costume design by Mariah Anzaldo Hale, lighting design by Max Doolittle, sound design by Sharath Patel. The cast: Ian Merrill Peakes, Samuel Adams, Lilli Hokama, Justin Adams, Amanda Bailey, Louis Butelli, Junior Gomez, Yvonne Paretzky, John Taylor Phillips, Ned Read, Deidra LaWan Starnes, Kathryn Zoerb. Produced by Folger Theatre. Reviewed by Alexander C. Kafka.