September 18, 2008
by Chris Jones
Chicago Shakes' Amadeus plays out as deftly cast tale of rivals
If a production of Peter Shaffer's Amadeus is any good, your head briefly leaves the play somewhere in the second act. And you start to wonder who in your past might have intentionally sabotaged your career.
It was easy to do in 18th Century Vienna and it's easy to do now. A whisper here. A judicious press of the "send" key there. You'd never have known. But the effects would have been devastating. Is that why you've not progressed as you wished? As the curtain came down Tuesday night on Gary Griffin's engaging and theatrically full-throttle revival for the Chicago Shakespeare Theater, I stared at a couple of well-dressed investment banker-types who seemed lost in thought, and I wondered if they were thinking along those lines. I was.
For "Amadeus" might look like a 1979 drama about two rival composers, Antonio Salieri and Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, clawing their way around the perils of the Austrian court, but it's really a triangular meditation on genius, mediocrity and, above all, jealousy. It's a very savvy, literate and pleasurable play, like all of Shaffer's plays, and it's no surprise that the subsequent movie carted off a whopping eight Oscars.
Salieri is a villain who constantly understands and narrates his own villainy—his tragedy is that he has too great an appreciation of artistic genius in others and too profound an understanding of his own limitations. But what makes this piece much more than mere melodrama is its delicious central irony: No one gets a great artist (or accountant, teacher, manager) like a journeyman colleague. Jealousy is never stronger than when aimed at someone who shares your specialty.
You can fool the clacking fools outside but, to paraphrase Shaffer's Salieri, where's the fun in being called distinguished by those incapable of distinguishing?
Griffin's revival is not a feast of radical revisionism that someone is likely to move to New York. Although Virgil Johnson has crafted deliciously apt costumes, the show occupies a sometimes uneasy place between simplicity and flourish.
But this is a rich, deftly cast, fully realized and emotionally honest production that deserves to do very well for Chicago Shakespeare and that contains a pair of very strong central performances.
The one I most admired is perhaps the less obvious. But Robbie Collier Sublett's work as poor Mozart is exceptionally fine. This young actor from New York reveals, with equal vivacity, both the boyish oaf at the beginning of the drama and the troubled soul as it progresses. He's not afraid to be irritating (he'll likely remind you of some smarter-than-you kid in your office). But what's tougher to pull off is the sense that genius lives in this pimply vessel. You'll believe it here.
Anyone playing Salieri has to cope with a monster tour de force who never stops explaining and maligning himself. And I'd say that Robert Sella sometimes gets too bogged down in self-doubt at the expense of the driving malevolence that's just as much a part of his character. But while Sella hadn't fully figured out all of Salieri's contradictory waves and currents on Tuesday night, he'd certainly figured out how to get the audience in his grip. He's a fabulously open actor and a dazzling communicator. His performance will get better as it goes.
As the woman in the middle of this pair, Elizabeth Ledo sparkles with life. The understated Lance Baker is darn good, too, as the emperor of Austria, a vapid patron whose love of the arts means little because he knows so little about it. And there are rich cameos from David Lively, Roger Mueller, John Reeger and the gossipy pair of Phillip James Brannon and Dan Sanders-Joyce.
It's a florid, unreconstructed kind of evening—too florid for some, perhaps and the script's proud verbosity sticks out more in these rushed days. But while some will reasonably argue about the various choices here and there, this is still an exceptionally well-acted and skillfully directed "Amadeus" that fundamentally gets and celebrates the play.
It makes you amply aware of how the mediocre have always been better equipped to rule the world.