06 July 2011

'Amadeus' (Round House Theatre, Bethesda, MD)

I made one of my periodic trips down to Washington in late May to visit my mom—and to catch the Gauguin exhibit at the National Gallery before it closed early in June (see my report, "Picasso, Bearden, Gilliam, and Gauguin" on ROT, 26 June). Mom has subscriptions to two District rep theaters, the Round House Theatre in Bethesda and the Studio Theatre in the 14th Street-Logan Circle area of D.C. During the time of my visit, they both ran season-ending productions of some interest, so I joined my mother and her companions for the performances. In my lifetime, Washington has become one of the country’s premier theater towns, alongside Minneapolis, Chicago, and Seattle, among others, so I always enjoy checking out what’s playing in the Nation’s Capital.

Mother, the friend who shares the Round House subscription, and I attended the matinee performance of Peter Shaffer’s Amadeus on Saturday, 28 May. I hadn’t seen the stage version of the play since it played on Broadway in 1980-83 (though I did see the 1984 film a few years after it came out), so I was looking forward to seeing it again. I’d liked the original enough to buy the script (as I had with Shaffer’s previous Broadway foray, Equus). Shaffer’s plays are among the best examples of theatricality with a provocative point that I know, and I often cite these two when I teach theater appreciation as examples of plays whose themes are different from their plot outlines. (Equus’ plot is about a boy who blinds six horses; its theme, by contrast, is how a doctor confronts the moral and ethical dilemma of whether to render a patient functional in society but an empty vessel or keep his soul intact but leave him unable to live among other people. I’ll make the contrast for Amadeus in a bit.)

By the way, in reference to the theme of a play (or a production, should that be different), I have to commend director Mark Ramont of the Round House staging for his note “From the Director” in the program. Back on 28 August 2009, I published an article on ROT, “To Note, Or Not To Note,” which scolded directors and producers for writing elaborate program notes explaining what they had tried to do on stage, even (or especially) when the results didn’t pan out. “If the ideas are well thought-out and the work is clear, the notes become superfluous,” I wrote. “I don’t need to be told what I can plainly see. If the ideas are muddled and unfulfilled on stage, the note serves only to illuminate what might have happened, but didn’t.” What Ramont wrote in his note was: “. . . [I]f I’ve done my job well, there should be no need for a program note; the experience of the play itself should hold within it everything you need to know to enjoy and appreciate the play.” Excellent sentiment. Ramont wrote further: “The older I get, the less interested I am in saying something than I am in letting the play speak for itself and in letting the audience take what it will from the experience.” Well said, too. Ramont showed me that he trusts his audience to see what is going on before our eyes and himself and his company to accomplish what they’d set out to. I won’t speak for the audience, since I can’t vouch for everyone in it, but as for the company, his trust was well placed. They acquitted themselves well.

I originally saw Amadeus in May 1981 at the Broadhurst Theatre. (The Broadway production had opened on 17 December 1980.) I saw Ian McKellen as Salieri and Tim Curry as Mozart, the original leads, but Constanze Weber (Mozart’s wife) was being played by Coris Corfman, the original Katherina Cavalieri. (I believe Jane Seymour, who was the original Constanze, was pregnant and left the show at just about this time.) Aside from the actors in the film (which I saw in 1991), this was the cast I’ve had in my memory for three decades. Allowing for the fact that it’s a 30-year-old memory, I can say that the Round House cast was more than up to the job of erasing any preconceived ideas I had about the way Amadeus is played. I will get to the acting momentarily, but I’ll make one further comment on that score. The strongest recollection I have of the 1981 performance is of McKellen’s Salieri, particularly his transformation at the beginning of each act from the dying old man in 1823 to the vigorous younger one 40 years earlier. Edward Gero, a longtime Washington-area actor, may not have been concerned with the comparison, but he had the most vulnerability to it—and he more than measured up. (I don’t mean this to sound like a backhanded compliment. I’ve seen Gero a number of times, perhaps most recently as John, the former-priest-turned-therapist, in Conor McPherson's Shining City in 2008. He’s a versatile actor, appearing in classics and modern works, as contemporary and period characters, and in musicals and straight plays, and he’s always grounded, solid, and believable. He’s been nominated 14 times for Helen Hayes Awards, Washington’s local counterpart to the Tony, and won four times.)

Amadeus, as I said, is a favorite play of mine, in particular as an example, like Shaffer’s Equus, of a play with a theme distinct from its plot. If you ask people what Amadeus is about, I believe most will tell you that it examines whether Antonio Salieri murdered Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart out of jealousy and frustration. That’s how the play and the movie were both sold, with ads that asked in an ominous voice-over, “Did he do it?” That’s what the story’s about, and Shaffer holds off telling us whether or not his play will declare Salieri guilty or innocent of Mozart’s early death. If you see Amadeus as a murder mystery, then that’s what it’s about.

But that’s not what Shaffer wrote about. That’s the story he tells, but it isn’t the point he’s making. It isn’t the play’s theme. The mystery of Mozart’s death and the question of Salieri’s complicity is the vehicle through which the playwright is exploring what I find a very provocative and challenging dilemma, one most of us avoid in our lives, I believe. The question Shaffer’s asking is: What does a man do when he’s confronted with proof that he’s a mediocrity in his chosen field? How do you handle that revelation? How do you go on once you’ve learned that all you will ever be is an also-ran? What an awful situation. The cliché has it that most people see themselves as the lead characters of their own stories. Salieri discovers that once Mozart’s genius is recognized—and God curses Salieri with the clarity to see Mozart’s genius without the talent to challenge it—he’s only going to be a bit player.

Just to raise the stakes—this is drama, after all, not a documentary—Shaffer reminds us that Salieri made a pact with God. If God made him a success as a composer, a celebrated leader in his profession, Salieri would devote himself to God and live an exemplary life. Then along comes Mozart, an effortless genius who succeeds beyond comprehension with apparent ease—and to make this even more unbearable, he’s an egotistical, sybaritic, “obscene” child. Yet, God chose him as His vessel. That’s why the play isn’t called either Salieri or Mozart, but Amadeus, using the composer’s middle name. It means “Lover of God,” the Latin equivalent of the German name Gottlieb, but Salieri, who always calls Mozart “Amadeus” when speaking of him to the audience, refers to his rival as God’s “preferred Creature”—the “Beloved of God.” Salieri wanted to be, worked for it—but Mozart didn’t care and was. That’s what the play is about. That’s the point Peter Shaffer’s making. That’s the awful dilemma at the center of the play that raises it above the average, often phony drama, to a great piece of theater. (I’m not talking dramatic literature here—Shaffer’s not Shakespeare. But Amadeus is a piece of theater that meets all my criteria magnificently.)

That said, I should go on to point out that the director and cast probably shouldn’t pay much attention to it when they’re developing their production. The director has to know it, and I’d say the actors should, too—but then they should ignore it. They need to play the script, not the message. The knowledge may inform some of the choices the director and actors make—not that I have any idea what this company was up to, of course—but actors play actions, not themes. So director Ramont, who’s finishing his tenure as director of theater programming at historic Ford’s Theatre (now there’s a gig!), and his company did as he hinted—they went about their business, playing their roles and doing their jobs, leaving the meaning up to us spectators.

I’ll assume that by now, what with Milos Forman’s film (which is much more diffuse and looser than the stage play) and the many revivals around the world, that you all know the story. So I’ll launch right into my performance report. And I’ll state my overall conclusion right at the outset: I found not one aspect of the Round House production to criticize. (How’s that for a lead?) Most local reviews were very positive, especially for the performers. The Washington Post, while touting Gero’s work as “thrilling” and “commanding” and calling Sasha Olinick “wonderfully intuitive” as Mozart, characterized Ramont’s production as “stately” and complained that it sometimes “smacks of reenactment.” I can’t say I felt that. The Gaithersburg, Maryland, Gazette, a District suburban newspaper, called the production “pitch-perfect,” which echoed most of the other area outlets. (For some reason, Washington’s other daily, the Washington Times didn’t seem to have run a review.) Washingtonian magazine caviled about the quality of the sound system’s reproduction of Mozart’s music, but my ears are not so finely calibrated—this isn’t a musical, after all—and I suspect you’d have to be an audiophile to register that complaint.

From the costumes by Bill Black to the sets by James Kronzer to the sound and lights by, respectively, Matthew M. Nielson, responsible for the theater-filling renditions of Mozart’s music and the echoes of Salieri’s confessions that give the play some of its texture, and Matthew Richards, whose shadows and murky edges create the moments of magic—the unseen operas—and ominousness—the specter that haunts Mozart at the end—to the acting and directing, it all worked so well together that I’m not sure I can pull the production apart to analyze it. (No wonder Ramont didn’t feel it’d be necessary to say anything about the work—he and his team did it and it showed.)

Kronzer’s sets were what I’d describe as fragmentary Realism. With the exception of the cathedral set at the beginnings and ends of the two acts, which was pretty much a fully realized church interior, the 18th-century rooms of the rest of the play were represented by set pieces like chairs, tables, and a harpsichord that were moved on and off as each scene started, facilitating the quick segues necessary to keep the two-hour-and-forty-five-minute play moving. The cathedral set, which greeted the audience as we entered the auditorium, setting the tone, was vaulting and imposing, recalling many of the vast churches I saw all over Europe in the ‘60s and ‘70s. It was dominated by immense faux-marbre columns with tiers of glowing red votive candles across the rear. It was rather stern, befitting the confessional content of the opening and closing scenes, in contrast with the Rococo rooms of Schönbrunn Palace and Salieri’s home that followed.

For the most part, the center of the stage was left bare like the dance floor of a cabaret to give the characters maximum space to work so what we don’t have is a drawing-room drama. In fact, a dance of sorts isn’t a bad metaphor—a sort of non-rhythmic ballet, if you see what I mean—though perhaps a spoken opera is an apter metaphor. Ramont’s staging was somewhat presentational, so the space served as a kind of theater stage-within-a-stage. The set design accommodated this action perfectly, creating an atmosphere while reproducing a set of period rooms. It did concentrate the action to the middle of the stage, but I didn’t see that as a fault. This is a play about theatrical performing (concerts and operas), after all.

The costumes (with wigs by Heather Fleming) were more literal. Mozart’s wig was wilder than the rest (and probably than the age would have tolerated), but not as punk-inspired as Tom Hulce’s in the film; the rest of the clothes and hairstyles were perfectly period-appropriate while at the same time suggestive of character and role. Count Von Strack, imperial groom, “stiff and proper,” wears brown and earth colors, decidedly unflashy, but Count Orsini-Rosenberg, imperial opera director and enamored of all things Italian, is dressed in high-fashion blues and bright colors with plenty of gold trim.

Shaffer has written cartoonish versions of his characters, especially Salieri and Mozart, but also Emperor Joseph II and his courtiers. The two antagonists at the center of the play are drawn so that they are diametrical opposites, and this is no accident. Director Ramont kept to this plan and both actors, Gero as Salieri, an angry and frustrated cartoon to be sure, and Olinick, an alternately potty-mouthed vulgarian and infantile clown, were more than willing to go to the extremes the production demanded. Floyd King, who plays comedy as if he were born to the genre and is a favorite of my mother and Washington audiences in general, made Emperor Joseph an almost-simple-minded monarch with charm and a lot of power. (I’ve seen King in many roles, including Feste in Twelfth Night—but his picture ought to illustrate the encyclopedia entry for Andrew Aguecheek.) His court is made up of little wind-up dolls. None of them is real—Shaffer wasn’t writing about real people because Amadeus isn’t a history play—and the actors all did what they needed to to make the horror of Salieri’s self-recognition palpable.

Both Gero and Olinick, whom I don’t recall ever having seen before, took on the mercurial changes with virtuosity. Gero shifted from oleaginous charm and dissembling to barely controlled rage at God without a blink. When Salieri’s the master of his domain, Gero’s control is calm and complete, a vision of self-satisfaction and confidence, even as he lies and misrepresents. When the Italian composer starts to realize where he stands in God’s esteem, I could feel the actor quiver and burn beneath his skin until he explodes. Olinick’s Mozart was by turns a possessed genius who sneers at the ignorance of those around him and a frolicking, uninhibited child for whom everything is a toy and every place is a sandbox. Despite his small stature, the actor isn’t as boyish-looking as Hulce was in the film, or even as Curry appeared on Broadway, but when Olinick burst into his antics, rolling around on the floor with Constanze and cooing baby-talk, he was like a grotesque imp on speed. (I can only surmise that the work, for both actors but especially Olinick, was exhausting.)

One local reviewer from DCTheatreScene wrote on line that “Shaffer succeeded in creating a compelling, highly intellectual drama that pursues a number of interesting threads.” Ramont and his company fully realized this intention as far as I’m concerned, and did it exceptionally. Another on-line reviewer, DCist, warned that Ramont intended “to suck you into the play.” Well, he sure did get me in! Round House’s Amadeus was one of the most satisfying theater experiences I’ve had in recent years.

[The second show I saw in Washington in May was the Studio Theatre’s revival of the Off-Broadway hit, Venus in Fur by David Ives. I’ll publish my report on that production shortly. Come back to ROT in a few days to see what I had to say about this two-hander.]

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