The late British playwright Peter Shaffer was blessed with two of the most unlikely gifts: creating dazzling intellectual puzzles with more than one satisfying solution, and turning out scripts that delighted multitudes, became hit films and made him a wealthy man.
His two best-known works for the stage, Equus and Amadeus, were renowned for the intensity of their insights into the human condition mixed with a titillating side order of everything known to sell a few extra tickets. Like many in British entertainment since the 1960s, by the time Shaffer passed away in 2016, he was Sir Peter.
Based on a slim collection of rumors spread in the early 19th century, the production of Amadeus that opened last night at Washington’s Folger Shakespeare Library is about a few light-hearted human foibles. Namely: greed, ambition, lust, envy, the true nature of genius, the meaning of life and the often-exasperating behavior of God. He works in mysterious (and literally maddening) ways indeed, if you were to ask court composer Antonio Salieri. Giving that immature, thoroughly obnoxious kid Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart all that genius could drive a lesser man to, well, murder.
It is unclear from history whether Salieri did the slightest thing to poison Mozart, who started and then ended very young. The prodigy does indeed, in the course of Amadeus, drive the once-adored, now-forgotten composer insane as he ponder the gifts the God he prayed to as a Catholic in smalltown Italy bestowed on somebody who wasn’t him. The whodunit aspect of Shaffer’s roiling and raucous script simply provide the tracks on which this highly literate and literary train will run.
Folger director Richard Clifford is proud of the fact that he acted in the final production of Amadeus that Shaffer himself was able to see. And he takes that as his personal commissioning to keep the play’s warring lead figures, Salieri and Mozart, in a tense fight to the death – though as Salieri declares more than once, his true enemy is a frivolous and ultimately cruel God. Turns out, Clifford has found two actors more than up to his commission.
Company regular Ian Merrill Peakes as Salieri towers over all others on the Amadeus stage, precisely as the script intends – and yes, as did F. Murray Abraham in the iconic film. Peakes inhabits the only character allowed, indeed forced, to speak directly to the audience. Cleverly, Shaffer set up this monologue as Salieri seeking the only thing he needs to meet his encroaching death, the only thing the great if hard-to-like Mozart denied him – absolution. While his crime might indeed be or include murder, it is also the guilt inherent (as most would see it) in declaring God his enemy. The audience becomes “ghosts of the future,” sent to pass judgment. We are Salieri’s jury.
As appropriate for a theater devoted to the Bard, Peakes rides Shaffer’s delicious roller-coaster of language, becoming himself old then young then old then young then old one last time. This transformation before our eyes he handles skillfully in body, voice and facial expression. He explains, he narrates, he shouts, he spews, he ponders, he protests, he suffers, he prays, he pleads, all with absolute conviction.
As the young Mozart, Samuel Adams brings a romping spirit, several colorful hairdos, a childish potty mouth and a ridiculous high-pitched cackle to the court of Vienna, making few friends along the way. Only in the composer’s final moments can his own suffering engage at least some of Salieri’s sympathy. Yet even then, in pain and fever, Mozart is composing what he believes will be his own Requiem Mass. Leave it to his older rival to imagine it’s a death knell for himself.
Other performers in the Folger Amadeus carry their weights excellently, especially Lilli Hokama as Mozart’s wife Constanze, John Taylor Phillips as a comic Emperor Joseph II, James Joseph O’Neil as Count Orsini-Rosenberg and Justin Adams as a severe Baron von Swieten. All these figures surrounded Mozart and Salieri during the years they lived and worked around the same royal court. Similarities or differences from real life become immaterial in Shaffer’s deft dramatic hands.
The show features scenic design by Tony Clark, terrific period costumes by Mariah Anzaldo Hale and crucial lighting design (as Salieri moves tirelessly in and out of his confession to the audience) by Max Doolittle. Sound design by Sharath Patel brings a special gift to lovers of Mozart’s music. The play brilliantly sets various stages for the most famous bits, such as the death of Mozart’s father morphing into the dark, condemning ghost at the end of Don Giovanni. The audience gets to delight in Mozart’s genius once again. No wonder Salieri goes crazy by the end of every performance.
Photos by C. Stanley