The Lord's Player

St. Louis Shakespeare gives Amadeus more than its due

Aug 11, 2004 at 4:00 am
St. Louis Shakespeare has mounted a first-rate production of Amadeus, Peter Shaffer's celebrated drama about jealousy, temptation and betrayal in the ornate, rococo world of eighteenth-century Vienna.

Under the keen direction of Milt Zoth, the entire design team has extended itself to provide the sumptuous elements upon which a successful Amadeus depends. The succession of lavish costumes by Teresa Doggett, the creative lighting design by Nick Moramarco that infuses Patrick Huber's regal unit set with a brooding life beyond its two staid pillars, Robin Weatherall's sound design of revealing excerpts from Mozart's operas, symphonies and Requiem Mass -- everything is impressively rendered.

Amadeus is the third in Shaffer's trilogy of pensive dramas that contemplate the mystery of God. It was written and produced after The Royal Hunt of the Sun and Equus, both of which also deal with immortality, the unknowable, the act of worship -- lofty themes that never can be fully grasped, but in which the playwright's very act of reaching is the script's reason for being.

The plot begins in 1781. Antonio Salieri (Kevin Beyer) is the prominent court composer to Joseph II, Emperor of Austria (Matt Kahler). Salieri secretly knows that his own music, despite its popularity, is mediocre. Because he views music as God's art, Salieri is convinced that to be second-rate is to be rejected by God. When Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (Jared Sanz-Agero) arrives at court, Salieri is incredulous. How could God choose this crass vulgarian as the human vessel through which to channel perfect music? Now the disillusioned Salieri finds "a terrible and thrilling purpose" to his life: This mediocre composer will wage war to the death against God Himself, with Mozart as the unsuspecting battleground.

But there's another battle being waged here -- the battle between playwright and actor. After hearing the premiere of "The Abduction from the Seraglio," Emperor Joseph foolishly suggests that there are "only so many notes the ear can hear in the course of an evening." Maybe the emperor is onto something, because that same observation can be made about this play: Shaffer has overloaded it with too many words, and too few ideas, with the result that Salieri becomes a forbidding Everest of a role.

Salieri's various emotions -- anger, fear, despair, self-loathing -- are all here to be plunked like keys on a harpsichord. Yet the play is more monologue than dialogue. In time so much storytelling, so much exposition, so much repetition, can numb a viewer's attention. Aware of these pitfalls, Beyer has approached Salieri as carefully and patiently as if he were scaling a forbidding mountain. Beyer's Salieri is a completely compelling performance from prologue to summit. Bravissimo.

In addition to maneuvering his way through the minefields of the monologues, Beyer makes the most of his scenes with others. At the top of Act Two, the audience sits rapt as Salieri attempts to seduce Mozart's wife Constanze (Maura Kidwell). A woman unbuttoning her blouse will tend to silence an audience, no question about that. But when the seduction turns sour and Kidwell's fingers lash out at Salieri with the lethal ferocity of switchblade knives, the play doesn't need more words. Instead two actors have at each other: That's theater too.

It might seem contrary to be less than enthusiastic about a play as acclaimed as Amadeus, which from 1980 to 1983 ran for nearly 1,200 performances on Broadway. The movie adaptation that promptly followed garnered eight Academy Awards, including Best Picture. But a minority opinion would suggest that despite Shaffer's lofty intentions, there's nothing particularly original about an onstage character talking to God. (Ever see Fiddler on the Roof?) To the contrary, a wise poet once observed, "The man who can simply say 'God' and think he's said something is really the blasphemer." Amadeus is hardly blasphemy, but in taking a great long time to say little that he hasn't said before, Shaffer sprinkles God throughout his script like salt from a shaker.

In order for the play to work, it's best to not take the playwright's pious preaching too seriously. Better to approach Amadeus like one of the confections that satisfies Salieri's sweet tooth, a light macaroon perhaps, or one of those divine nipples of Venus with which Salieri attempts to seduce Constanze. For if you give the play too much weight, if you stare too hard at its pretensions, you might find that Shaffer's three hours of musings are so ungodly long as to transform even the most faithful theatergoer into an agnostic.

No quibbles, though, about the St. Louis Shakespeare production. Thanks to Zoth, the astonishingly effective Beyer, a supporting cast of 22 actors and an imaginative design team, local theater doesn't get much more fully realized than this.