A decent production of a great play, Folger’s Amadeus, going on now until December 22, raises a question perhaps best phrased in the show’s own musical metaphors: Is a sensational soloist all you need for a concerto to work?
Having seen actor Ian Merrill Peakes’s lead turns in Folger’s (enjoyable) 2017 Timon of Athens and (astounding) 2018 Macbeth, I was nevertheless surprised by his Salieri, the Classical-era Vienna court composer driven nearly mad with jealousy and a megalomanic sense of divine betrayal. I correctly assumed walking in that Peakes would bring tremendous depth and passion to the character, who in Peter Shaffer’s ornate, two-and-a-half-hour script is never permitted to leave the stage. But he’s also sneakily funny, adept at instantly aging into an old man, and no doubt a name you’ll hear again come Helen Hayes Awards time. Forget concerti, it’s a one-man symphony of a performance, and the best reason to see this show.
Though one imagines they might feel otherwise, that is not intended as slight to the other performers on stage. Samuel Adams’s Mozart provides a perfect counterpoint, bobbing around the stage in his Easter egg-colored wigs. Adams doesn’t shy from the character’s mildly repellent absurdity (middle schoolers don’t make this many poop jokes), nor does he reach to find likability in the composer’s genius, both to the audience’s benefit. And in multiple productions of Amadeus, I’ve never seen a better Constanze than Lilli Hokama’s. Both winsome and fiery, Hokama fills her scenes with inner life — she compartmentalizes excellently.
Less impressive are the technical elements. Mariah Anzaldo Hale’s costumes are fine, though neither as creative nor as rigidly realistic as they could be. Tony Cisek’s set, however, just seems in the way. A series of giant-sized music staffs that resemble prison bars with all the subtlety of a kettle drum, they seem to get in the way more than anything else. Even more on-the-nose is the glowing cross that appears when Salieri talks to God. Lights and sound, meanwhile, are ho-hum … when they should be transcendent.
As directed by Richard Clifford, Amadeus plays out like an 18th century card game. Fortunes shift, alliances turn, and adversaries deploy weapons their opponents didn’t even know existed. It is, as productions of this show should always be, an offering of aesthetic pleasures with a highly cerebral and spiritual background, though not all of those pleasures fully come to fruition.
The piece is fine; the soloist is superb.