*** ½ stars (out of four)
As the old saying goes, the four best words any theater critic can hear are “90 minutes, no intermission.” My colleague, Washingtonian food and wine editor Todd Kliman, wrote recently that 60 percent of the meals he eats for work purposes range from awful to forgettable. I wouldn’t hazard a guess as to what percentage of plays I see are enjoyable; I’ll merely say we’re extremely lucky to have such a wealth of talented actors and directors in Washington. That said, any play over two and a half hours has to be spectacular to merit that kind of time commitment, so when approaching a play like Peter Shaffer’s Amadeus—currently at Bethesda’s Round House Theatre—the prospect of a two-hour-and-45-minute running time doesn’t fill me with joyful anticipation.
Luckily, Amadeus is a spectacular play, and this production, directed by Mark Ramont—director of theater programming at Ford’s Theatre—is an entirely justifiable way to spend the better part of three hours. Edward Gero, who plays composer Antonio Salieri, the play’s Machiavellian protagonist, has long been one of the area’s finest actors (with four Helen Hayes Awards and 14 nominations under his belt), and in this role, he’s simply magnificent. For those unfamiliar with the Tony Award-winning play and the 1984 film, Amadeus tells the story of Salieri’s rivalry with Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and his hate-filled attempts to thwart Mozart’s career after the latter’s oafish, bawdy sense of humor and unrefined manner offend him. To Salieri, a devout Catholic, “music is God’s art,” and he’s horrified that such divine sounds can spring from such a foul source.
Gero has the majority of lines, and he never falters, whether spewing condemnation at his rival or visibly yearning over the sheer power of Mozart’s music. Outside of his passionate soliloquies, Salieri’s demeanor is stiffly composed and inscrutable—all the better to contrast with the younger Mozart (Sasha Olinick), an absurd, gross buffoon, as unattractive as his music is sublime. Olinick’s résumé includes extensive work with young audiences, and his childish, hyperactive performance is pitch-perfect, even if you eventually long for Mozart to take it down a notch. Laura C. Harris as Constanze, Mozart’s wife, delivers a remarkable performance, expressing emotions with her face that belie her character’s seeming simplicity. Local favorite Floyd King also shines in his brief role as Austrian emperor Joseph II, managing to appear both stately and charmingly idiosyncratic.
Ramont has a lot to work with considering his cast, his script, and the necessary inclusion of the best of Mozart’s music. Ensemble scenes are nicely done, although some of the gothic-inspired moments occasionally tend toward the hammy (initial whispers of “Salieri” coming from all around the auditorium feel excessive, and a scene in which Salieri dresses up as one of Mozart’s nightmares is silly rather than spooky). But tension is carefully maintained throughout. James Kronzer’s set is vast and imposing, with beautifully rendered marble pillars and flickering red church candles in the background to signify Salieri’s confession, while Bill Black’s costumes are lavish works of art, nicely complemented by Heather Fleming’s wigs. The sound quality doesn’t always do justice to Mozart’s music, but without a live virtuoso on stage, not much would.
Amadeus originally made its US debut in Washington in November 1980, and this production is a very respectable revival of a thrilling work. As a character condemned to recognize both genius and his own mediocrity, Salieri speaks for all artists overwhelmed by envy for others’ talents, and in the hands of Gero, his story makes for gripping viewing.