We are accustomed to the notion of the tortured genius, but Peter Shaffer’s “Amadeus” has a very different take: it is a portrait of the artist as a “giggling, dirty-minded creature crawling on the floor,” in the words of his nemesis, Antonio Salieri, Kapellmeister at the Austrian Court.
The portrayal of composer Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart as a debauched reveler and the victim of a Mozart-Salieri rivalry has a long literary pedigree: “Both in his amusements and in his creative activity, Mozart knew no limits,” wrote the German poet Eduard Mörike in “Mozart on His Journey to Prague,” while the Russian poet Alexander Pushkin in his work “Mozart and Salieri” portrayed Salieri, “in pangs of envy,” seeking the death of Mozart.
Such portrayals of Mozart and his life became highly popularized with the success of Shaffer’s 1979 play and its subsequent 1984 Academy Award-winning film adaptation.
The historicity of the events of Mozart’s life as they enfold may be in doubt, but one thing is certain: The current production at the Folger Theatre, in its deft characterization of Mozart and Salieri, brings the relationship of the two principals near the heights of classical drama.
Directed by Richard Clifford, the human drama and frustration of genius and its persecutor is breathtaking to behold as our sympathy and disgust pour out alternately to both Mozart and Salieri.
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart is portrayed with fervor, intensity, and whimsicality by Samuel Adams throughout the production. As the audience will expect, he emulates with great skill the famous, endearing, and annoying giggle of Mozart from the film version.
Ian Merrill Peakes, who plays Antonio Salieri, has a challenging role as the character dominates the play, both in middle age and his dotage. Peakes makes the transitions flawlessly, adding to the believability of the character.
Shaffer’s play is written with verve and wit, and this production does these qualities justice. Mozart’s works were referred to during some of the scenes, as when Amadeus and his expectant wife Constanze Mozart (an incandescent performance by Lilli Hokama) were talking about their child, and mimic the name “Papageno,” a character in Mozart’s final opera, “The Magic Flute.”
Impressive yet austere sets created by scenic designer Tony Cisek are used in this production, with instrumental strings playing in the background, based directly on Mozart musical stylings. Indeed, the stage set consists of large strings, suggesting alternately the harp, the violin or even the inside of a piano or harpsichord.
This was an especially effective backdrop during a humorous scene in which Mozart plays and gives stunning variations to a composition by Salieri, to the latter’s chagrin. Rococo costumes and wigs (designed memorably by Mariah Anzaldo Hale) are employed throughout, with Mozart at one point sporting in almost modern manner wigs dyed pink and later blue.
Throughout the play, Salieri’s narration includes speeches to God. A glowing cross shows up in the background to indicate this, though Salieri thinks God spurns and mocks him. As Mozart’s star goes into the ascendency in terms of his genius, Salieri, who would once pray to God to be a great composer, rejects religion. This is one of those poignant moments in which Peakes as Salieri oddly elicits our sympathy, for his dream was ever to be favored by the Divine with the musical gifts Mozart enjoys so effortlessly.
Perhaps our empathy of Salieri is heightened further when we read in the Folger’s program under the “Did You Know?” section that Salieri wrote a now-forgotten “Falstaff” opera based on Shakespeare’s “The Merry Wives of Windsor,” somewhat in the style of Mozart’s opera “The Marriage of Figaro.” This instance of being eclipsed by the genius and the play “Amadeus” itself are reminders that we must each come to terms with our envy of those in our midst whose talents exceed our own.
After all, old and bitter Salieri is a dramatic warning of the truism of the ancient Greek philosopher Antisthenes that “envious people are devoured by their own disposition, just as iron is by rust.”
This warmly recommended production of Peter Shaffer’s “Amadeus” can be seen at the Folger Theatre at 201 East Capitol Street, SE, Washington, D.C., through Dec. 22. For further information, please visit the Folger’s website at www.folger.edu.