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Review: Folger Theater's AMADEUS a Descent in to the Dark Side of Musical Genius

You know you're in for an intense evening on musical themes when the Folger Theatre stage, in its entirety, looks like the insides of a concert piano. Tony Cisek's scenic design has the frames and setting of a Steinway writ large, with rods shooting skyward at oblique angles, in layers that allow for actors to reveal and conceal themselves at will between the strings, with the aid of Max Doolittle's ingenious lighting.

The setting for Richard Clifford's production of Amadeus, Peter Shaffer's classic, modern revenge tragedy could not be more skillfully assembled, and Clifford has created a taut, compelling evening for Folger audiences that remind us how shockingly contemporary the play's themes are, even though the action takes place in Enlightenment-era Vienna. The ambitions, the lust, the back-stabbing are even more relevant today-or so it seems to me-than back when Amadeus was first staged in the late 1970's.

We begin with the wild rumors generated by aging composer Antonio Salieri, that he had poisoned the now-beloved composer Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (hence the title). As Salieri, Ian Merrill Peakes draws you in gently, obligingly, as a host to we "ghosts of the future." Peakes makes a point of first showing us Salieri as a vulnerable, doddering old madman, slurred in his diction and weak in his pipes, before throwing off the old man's robes to reveal the bold, confident, and once-pious court composer of Holy Roman Emperor Joseph II's court, in Vienna.

As with most conspiracy theories, all you need to buy into Salieri's conceit is that kernel of reality, the grain of truth, which Salieri manipulates into creating his own counter-narrative of the young Mozart's untimely death. The older composer represents the pious, Italian Catholic elite of the Empire, and as his fame and commissions shoot through the roof he is confronted by a newly-arrived Mozart, a trash-talking punk from Salzburg, the former child-prodigy who not only composes brilliantly, he does it entirely in his head-his "noodle"-never needing to correct a single note as he casually writes them down at his billiard table, shooting the ball around with one hand while writing immaculately-conceived masterpieces with the other.

Samuel Adams strikes a balance in the role of Mozart, with his high-pitched laugh and his punk-style periwigs (colored to match some truly spectacular outfits, created by Mariah Anzaldo Hale). Adams shows us how Mozart's childish view of the world can be amusing, but at times a disaster; Shaffer provides the young man with just enough jealousy and vitriol to show that he was actually his own worst enemy, and he holds out the possibility that Mozart's death was in some ways self-inflicted.

With productions of classic shows like this I'm on the lookout for a new revelation, for scenes and characters I had neglected before. Here, the laurels go to Lilli Hokama, who plays Mozart's wife Constanze. It's one thing to play the ingenue, and engage in flirty banter with one's husband; she checks that box with ease. But what is more memorable is the way Hokama takes us into the depths of Constanze's despair, when Salieri attempts to seduce her in return for a professional gig for her husband.

It's a classic "quid pro quo;" Salieri knows it, and he is convinced he has the ability to merely suggest a fling with Mozart's wife to get what he wants. Because of Constanza's innocence, however, in the end he has to make his intentions disgustingly clear. Shaffer wrote this confrontation between Salieri and Constanze long before the Me-Too movement, but Clifford makes a point of slowing down the action so the audience can truly feel the intensity of Salieri's advances. What begins as an awkward, half-cocked attempt at seduction veers suddenly into territory that is all too familiar to us. Not only do we see the damnation of Salieri's soul in action, we see the effect of his sexual aggression on a woman desperate to help her husband, but horrified by what she might have to do. (I'll leave off the plot twist here; see it for yourself.)

Shaffer constructs the plot in such a way that the climax, for both acts 1 and 2, is a scene in which Salieri is driven to reveal his true, evil intentions. What he does to Constanze in Act 1 he does to Mozart in Act 2, in an equally chilling scene where he reveals his hatred for the young prodigy-a hatred Adams' Mozart is too child-like to fathom until it is too late.

It is the utter psychological devastation of Salieri's descent into attempted rape and murder that is brought front-and-center. As enjoyable as it might be to watch the court scenes here-chock full clique politics and witty references to Mozart's operas, among other things-we are driven to follow Peakes' Salieri as he gives vent to the utter darkness of his soul. Sure, it's likely that he made the whole thing up; but remember that in the wonderful world of Catholic guilt, the contemplation of murder is as good as the deed itself. Confession, to a theatre audience as well as to a priest, is good for the soul it seems.

Classical music fans will be delighted to know that Sharath Patel's sound design includes a number of our personal favorites from Mozart's immortal canon, and this enables Kathryn Zoerb (as the soprano Katherina Cavalieri) to lip-sync deliciously with one of Mozart's elaborate, early arias. When Count Orsini-Rosenberg (played with just the right element of elitist condescension by James Joseph O'Neil) critiques the music with the famous line, "too many notes," you can hear exactly what he's talking about.

For Shaffer fans, it's a delight to have Salieri and Amadeus back in town; for newcomers, it's a deep-dive into the world of classical music and dark intrigue--with the question hovering over the story, "Did he do it? Really?" They report, you decide.

Production Photo: Salieri (Ian Merrill Peakes) makes an indecent proposal towards Mozart's fiancé, Constanze Weber (Lilli Hokama). Photo by C. Stanley Photography.

Running Time: 2 hours and 45 minutes, with one intermission.

Performances of Amadeus run through December 22 at the Folger Theatre, 201 E. Capitol Street SE, Washington, DC. For tickets call 202-544-7077, or visit:

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