By Web Behrens
It’s always a treat when a theater company kicks off a new season with a triumph, and that’s exactly what Chicago Shakespeare Theater has done with its thrillingly accomplished Amadeus. With a confident vision, director Gary Griffin notches up the ribald humor on this famously speculative biography but never undercuts the soul-shattering, life-or-death stakes of the drama.
Peter Shaffer’s enthralling play really should be titled Salieri but that doesn’t have the same elegant ring of both the moniker and the music of Amadeus—as in Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, the perpetually famous composer at the center to the story. Still, Mozart’s not the protagonist; that distinction belongs to Antonio Salieri. Indeed, thanks to Peter Shaffer’s crafty writing—which asks not “whodunit?” but “did-or-didn’t-he-dunit?”—everything we know about Mozart comes through Salieri’s point of view. He narrates the story directly to us, the audience, his “ghosts of the future,” but are we witnessing a confession of a murder? Did Salieri plot to ruin and ultimately poison Mozart, God’s perfect vessel for musical composition? (If you’re only familiar with this Tony-winning Best Play through its Oscar-lauded film adaptation, you’ve got a big treat in store: The storyline here unfolds with significant, superior differences. It’s a work designed for, and best enjoyed in, the theater.)
In the thrilling primary role, Robert Sella rises to Shaffer’s challenge, delivering a commanding take on the envious court composer who fancies himself the only man able to truly appreciate Mozart’s astonishing gifts. There’s a reason this role wins the highest acting honors for the men who play it (Ian McKellan, F. Murray Abraham), and Sella rises to this occasion with his carefully calibrated Salieri, who slowly succumbs to rancorous envy. The actor also amplifies what might otherwise be mere subtext, suggesting that Salieri might be a closeted predator (he’s jealous of Mozart’s sexual conquests as well as his musical talents), thus adding to the complex ironies of Shaffer’s script.
Of course, Sella needs a foil worthy of him, and Robbie Collier Sublett enthusiastically obliges. It’s Salieri who describes the magic of Mozart—which he does in gorgeous passages wherein Shaffer’s words nearly match that magic, as snippets of Mozart’s sublime compositions waft through the theater. But it’s up to Sublett to earn the audience’s shock and horror, giving Salieri a reason to loathe such genius. Sublett throws himself into the tricky contradictions of Amadeus—on one hand, a devilishly charming, handsome prodigy; on the other, a puerile spendthrift afflicted with a raging ego, a complete lack of social graces and an apparent scat fetish.
Griffin’s design team is also top-notch. Although one could stare for quite a while at the stage floor, which recalls divine Renaissance frescoes, designer Dan Ostling’s minimalist set is mostly unassuming, making way for the commanding visuals provided by Virgil Johnson’s luxe costumes and Melissa Veal’s scrumptious wigs. This production’s visuals alone are worth the price of admission.
Underneath the delightful flash, there’s plenty of substance. Salieri narrates a cautionary tale, but what does he warn us against? Paranoia? Jealousy? Ultimately, those are symptoms masking his astonishing lack of confidence in his own talents. This production offers us a compelling lesson about the poisonous effects of self-doubt.