September 18, 2008
by Hedy Weiss
New production of Amadeus is work of genius
THEATER REVIEW | Shakespeare troupe captures Shaffer's play in full glory
While Daniel Radcliffe, the now grownup Harry Potter, is baring all in his Broadway debut in Peter Shaffer's fabled play Equus, Chicago Shakespeare Theater is giving us an altogether bravura account of another Shaffer masterwork, Amadeus. And director Gary Griffin's radiant revival, with a truly starry cast all its own, easily can stand beside anything Broadway has to offer.
This is a crystal clear, visually ravishing, fully glorious version of a play most audiences know only from its less-than-ideal movie incarnation. And if Chicago Shakespeare were not on such a tight subscription schedule it easily could run for a year.
The play is Shaffer's incomparably rendered meditation on the tortured relationship between Antonio Salieri (Robert Sella), the Italian-bred composer favored by the Hapsburg court of late 18th century Vienna, and his peerless peer—that transcendent genius Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (Robbie Collier Sublett), who died young and penniless, but left a legacy that, as Salieri knew all too well, would live for eternity.
The provocative question Shaffer poses is this: Is there any worse fate to befall an artist than to be able to recognize genius, to desperately crave whatever that magical gift might be, and yet to know deep in your soul, as Salieri did, that you will never be anything more than competent and mediocre?
Salieri's obsessive jealousy of Mozart—and his rage at God for seemingly making such a socially rebellious, childlike being an instrument of divinity—became the driving force in his life. And here, as he awaits his death, he recounts that warping obsession in all its delusional mayhem and destructiveness. Amadeus is the anatomy of artistic envy at its most toxic extreme.
Stephen Sondheim famously reminded us that "art isn't easy," but Shaffer begs to differ. His Mozart (Sublett's beautifully calibrated portrayal is at once raucous, beguiling and wholly believable) creates operas in his head with astonishing ease and speed, and an almost giddy joyfulness. As he tells Salieri (a mesmerizing, tour de force performance by the gaunt, marvelously self-mocking Sella, an actor whose clockwork timing creates its own special music), the delay comes only from scribbling the notes on paper. And while Salieri suppresses his erotic nature as a sort of twisted offering on the altar of art, Mozart lives with gusto, engaging in a lusty if increasingly troubled marriage to Constanze Weber (the matchless Elizabeth Ledo in a performance of enormous depth and feeling, and great naughty fun, too).
In this drama, infused with only tantalizing bits of music (most of it recorded, though Kari Sorenson is delicious as Mozart's favorite coloratura), Griffin orchestrates every moment of Shaffer's dense but luminously written "score" to perfection, with glittering supporting performances by Phillip James Brannon, Dan Sanders-Joyce, Lance Baker, John Reeger, David Lively, Roger Mueller and others.
And there is one extra touch of genius at work here, too. It is Dan Ostling's set—a huge mirror suspended high above the stage to reflect the lushly frescoed palace ceiling that is actually painted on the floor. A fabulous trick—and one that creates an effect almost as heavenly as Mozart's music in this dreamy production.