“Invocation is an exhausting business” declares composer Antonio Salieri in the early moments of Peter Shaffer’s Amadeus. He’s speaking to us from 1823, some three decades after he has hounded his rival, the genius he calls “the creature” Wolfgang A. Mozart, to death. No one believes he did it, and so as his own end draws near, Salieri must conjure a roomful of ghosts—that’s us—to be his confessors and his final audience.
For the Folger Theatre’s sturdy revival, director Richard Clifford stages the moment exactly as Shaffer’s 40-year-old stage directions instruct, with the house lights at full illumination. In the preface to the Perennial Library edition of Amadeus, its original director, Sir Peter Hall, recalls how Shaffer persisted in revising the script each time it was produced. He then passes the mic to the playwright himself, who takes 20 pages to detail the half-dozen iterations of the climax—a wholly invented episode wherein Salieri confesses to a destitute, ill, and broken Mozart that he has been the secret author of all the younger man’s suffering—went through before settling into its final textual form.
That’s instructive. Amadeus was a hit in every measurable way right out of the box: long runs in London and New York; five Tony Awards; eight Academy Awards when the movie version came around barely five years after the play was first seen. And yet Shaffer couldn’t stop fixing it. These were not pointless George Lucas-style filigrees. In Hall’s estimation, “the rewrites [were] always improvements.”
Well, phew. We like to believe brilliance is iterative, achievable through sustained and serious effort. The notion it could be innate makes suckers of us all, or at least all us non-geniuses. Which is why Saleri, embodied here by Folger stalwart Ian Merrill Peakes, is the most frighteningly recognizable of villains. The pious and studious kapellmeister of the Viennese court is so aggrieved by the womanizing and profane punk Mozart’s superior gift that the kid becomes mere collateral damage in Salieri’s oft-declared war on God itself.
Peakes is exactly the sort of actor to nail the role: capable, reliable, and familiar. He never lets you down and he never surprises you. He’s more than proficient enough to sell Salieri in his 70s and in his prime, as he was when he supposedly conducted his 10-year whisper campaign against Mozart. More importantly, you buy that he’s cunning enough to convince Mozart he’s an ally.
Samuel Adams’ impish Mozart is fresher in every sense. All that compositional supercomputing power is housed inside the body of a 26-year-old with the maturity of a 13-year-old, and Adams communicates that, his hiccup-like laugh functioning as a sort of involuntary exuberance valve.
Shaffer’s script is centered so heavily on the relationship between the two composers that with the exception of Mozart’s spouse, Constanze, given some intriguing pragmatism by Lilli Hokama, the other characters only ever get to play one note. But Clifford’s company hit their notes ably, and John Taylor Phillips’ addlebrained, easily persuaded Emperor Joseph II hits them with elan. His is the catchphrase-iest part in the show (“Too many notes!” “There it is.”) and he still manages to put a distinct comedic polish on them. I’m sure it’s harder than he makes it look.
Tony Cisek’s set is all draped strings, as if a piano had been drawn and quartered and its innards draped over the stage as a warning. That may sum up how Salieri regards his unworthy and intemperate competitor, and yet the tragedy of Salieri’s life—or at least the great irony of how Shaffer kept imagining it—is that no one appreciated Mozart’s talent earlier or more ardently than he did. Toxic fandom is as old as everything else.
To Dec. 22 at 201 East Capitol St. SE. $30-$95. (202) 544-7077. folger.edu.