Saturday, November 14, 2009

Fear and Loathing in "Amadeus"

To judge by the plays now showing on Rhode Island stages, all we need is love. The Gamm Theatre is presenting a romantic doubleheader, Much Ado About Nothing and Romeo and Juliet (love splits the series), while Providence College has just finished its own Romeo and Juliet and Trinity Rep gives us the midlife melancholy of Shooting Star. Each of these plays is fine in its own right, and some are even excellent, but, en masse, they suggest a stolid, sincere uniformity of theatrical subject. In the Age of Aquarius, each new loving couple has all the sparkle of a much-handled coin. Thank goodness, then, for the fear and loathing of Peter Shaffer’s Amadeus, which is being staged with fervid feeling and sharp, dark humor by the Elemental Theatre Collective in Beneficent Church. By producing the play in a church, director Alexander Platt has embraced certain aspects of the show—its awe before genius and its terror before God—while downplaying others, especially its heavily psychologized second act. He is also suggesting that the story of Salieri and Mozart has the moral universality and narrative elegance to compete, as it were, with the ritual played out in church every week. I think he gives the play too much credit; but, in doing so, he gives the audience a vigorous and satisfying theatre. There may be a generally applicable lesson here: that, in theatre at least, it is best to overshoot your mark. We leave the church pale from the show’s moral chill; it is a response, if not quite a rebuke, to the warm-heartedness prevailing on our local proscenia.

Amadeus tells the story of Antonio Salieri, the Kappellmeister of the Austrian empire, whose mediocrity is revealed and envy aroused when Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, having toured Europe and dazzled audiences as a young prodigy under his father’s oppressive influence, arrives in Vienna and aspires to a position at the court himself. I should say, rather, that Salieri tells the story of Salieri: the play’s galvanizing emotion is jealousy; its preferred medium, alloquy. There is no Amadeus without Salieri’s hypnotic narration. Indeed, he is one of the great storytellers in theatre: utterly honest and completely untrustworthy. When we first see him, he is an old man, crumpled and obscure, his only claim to distinction the rumors whispered in town that he is Mozart’s murderer—rumors that he is more than happy to confirm. Thus the play, which takes the form of a confession, begins.

Salieri starts with his conversion, which is not so much religious as musical. As a young boy in church, Salieri observes the power, the near-divinity, of the choirmaster, and is weakened by the sound issuing like unction from the choir. He resolves, in a fit of fresh conviction, to abjure earthly pursuits if God will grant him this one desire: to become a renowned composer. At first, Salieri believes that God has committed to this exchange; his musical gifts impress Emperor Joseph II, and he is advanced to the top of the musical hierarchy at the court. But when he meets Mozart, and hears his extraordinary compositions, the mere adequacy of his own talents is harshly exposed. As if Mozart’s genius were not dispiriting enough, his vulgarity and impiety are an actual affront to Salieri, whose life has been a symphony of self-abnegation. With the same determination that he had once applied to his devotion to God, Salieri turns to the destruction of Mozart. He attempts to seduce Mozart’s wife, Constanze; he bedevils Mozart with specious encouragement, which he directly contravenes to court officials; and, finally, as the young composer withers in illness and isolation, he terrorizes him by impersonating a black-clad figure from Mozart’s nightmares and nightly demanding a requiem mass. Detached but demanding, Salieri reenacts Mozart’s father’s imperiousness. In this disguise, Salieri transgresses the limits of human power: he is not only Mozart’s father, but also his God, and his death.

Shaffer, on the other hand, violates only the rules of compelling drama; the overt psychologizing of Salieri’s revenge against God is drama’s antithesis. For Shaffer, both Salieri and Mozart are products of exacting and implacable fathers whose deeply imprinted influence must be exorcised. Salieri completes his renunciation of God by assuming His power; he simultaneously completes his destruction of Mozart. We last see Mozart, reduced to mewling dependence, in his wife’s arms. But she has been transformed into his mother; the scene is a pieta. This Oedipal twist represents a contraction, rather than an expansion, of the first act’s premise. Salieri begins as a dervish of despair and ends as a methodological proto-Freudian. The energy and urgency of the show follows this narrative diminishment.

It is up to the actors to enliven the show’s second act, but it is clear that they are more at home with anguish—the dominant tone of the first act—than with evil. The play makes special demands on the actor who plays Salieri and who must sustain the story. Max Vogler is a credit to the role. His performance, part leer and part lecture, is sinister and dangerously seductive. However, though he demonstrates something like virtuosity in the first act, he can’t summon a necessary vengeful vitality later in the show. He has Salieri’s apologetic bewilderment down, but not the malevolence that would warrant it. Salieri’s conversion from victim to agent—from servant to executor—might be more powerful if it were more stark, but Vogler and Platt are sympathetic rather than judgmental. Even as he persecutes Mozart with an alienated indifferent, he retains his humanity. Their interpretation is intelligent and compassionate, but it dulls the sharp edge of Salieri's madness. Bryan Kimmelman is given the thankless task of playing Mozart, who was portrayed with famous impertinence by Tom Hulce in the 1984 movie version of the play. Kimmelman’s vocal characterization is fine, but his body is disengaged. He looks a little scrawled, like shorthand, so we can never quite make out what he’s trying to depict. Worse, his abstracted representation of conducting, composing, and performing is distractingly silly; Mozart himself is silly, of course, but when he is robed in his music he should, I think, achieve a certain heightened dignity. D’Arcy Dersham plays Constanze Mozart with terrific poise, capturing her toughness and fragility with equal credibility, and Tanya Anderson is frequently hilarious as the curt and condescending Emperor Joseph.

For sheer spectacle, nothing I have seen on stage this year matches Amadeus. The production is intimate, the subject terrible, and the performers full of passion and belief. We might wish that Shaffer had given them something more to believe in, but in these parsimonious times, we should take what we can get. Alex Platt and the ensemble have spun something fine from the sometimes rough fibers of Shaffer’s play. Their next challenge will be to perform a sublime version of a Salieri opera; I don't doubt that they could do it.