When I visited London in January 2019 for an exclusive with Sir Derek Jacobi, I wasn’t sure if I would also encounter his partner, Richard Clifford. It was an immense joy, therefore, when both actors were available to join me for the interview. It was a particularly enlightening discussion because I discovered that Richard Clifford often works in Washington, DC, the city where I usually review plays.
Ten months later, it’s exciting to see Clifford with his latest project in Washington, DC. The actor and Helen Hayes Award-nominated director is currently at the helm of a thrilling production of Peter Shaffer’s Amadeus at Folger Theatre until December 22. It’s worth noting the November opening time frame, because it coincides with the 40th anniversary of the November 1979 opening of Shaffer’s play at the National Theatre in London. The play went on to garner Tony Awards and, with Shaffer’s involvement, was adapted into the memorable film released in 1984.
Amadeus is set in 18th century Vienna, focusing on the intense envy composer Antonio Salieri (Ian Merrill Peakes) feels toward Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (Samuel Adams). The play opens in 1823 as rumors abound that Salieri may have murdered Mozart. An elderly Salieri in a wheelchair slyly announces the title of his final composition to the audience: “The Death of Mozart; or, Did I Do It?” Peakes goes on to adeptly shift between his 1823 and 1781 selves, adjusting his costume, range of movement, and voice to suit Salieri’s age.
In 1781, Salieri is comfortably successful in Vienna as a court composer to Emperor Joseph II (John Taylor Phillips), which he sees as the fruit of his pact to be faithful to God. One evening at a dinner party, he is caught off guard by Mozart’s crass behavior and superior musical talents. Mozart unwittingly upsets Salieri by having an affair with the older composer’s prized singing pupil and secret crush, Katherina Cavalieri (Kathryn Zoerb).
As Salieri sets in motion a plan to ruin Mozart, other court members gradually turn against the young composer because of his lack of decorum. The Folger Theatre cast of James Joseph O’Neil as Count Orsini-Rosenberg, Deidra LaWan Starnes as Madame von Strack, and Justin Adams as Baron von Swieten excel here at painting a picture of court intrigue and jockeying for advantage. O’Neil in particular cuts a menacing figure in a resplendent green outfit and tall wig in the memorable scene where he rips out the ballet sequence from Mozart’s score of The Marriage of Figaro.
Not everything is a walk in the park for Salieri in his quest for vengence. Peakes again shows astuteness in his craft when he expresses Salieri’s initial misgivings about trying to seduce Mozart’s wife, Constanze Weber (Lilli Hokama), and his last-minute regrets about the damage he’s inflicted on Mozart. His doubts ring out clearly through his mini-monologues and the desperate looks he casts toward the audience, giving tremendous weight to the cost of attaining his goals at the end.
Overall, the cast at Folger Theatre deserve high praise. Phillips brings some welcome comic relief as the emperor when he ends his scenes with pronouncements of “There it is” and intervenes in round two of Orsini-Rosenberg versus Mozart. Hokama steers an admirable and moving course along the tightrope of Constanze’s selfishness and her grief for Mozart. Even Yvonne Paretzsky and Ned Read, who don’t have lines in the script, maintain remarkable presence during their brief time onstage as Teresa Salieri and Kapellmeister Bonno. Whether it’s the lively Venticelli spies (Amanda Bailey and Louis Butelli) or any other characters, there’s someone to pick out at the end of the evening as a favorite, which is a rare treasure.
For a play like Amadeus to work, it’s vital to have a strong and talented actor portraying Mozart. That requirement is met through the acting prowess of Samuel Adams, who seems to wholeheartedly embrace Mozart’s social faux pas moments with high-pitched laughter, obscene language, and freedom of movement when he glides into a room. To be clear, however, Adams never verges on caricature, and he pulls back adroitly when necessary to accentuate the quieter moments.
The Amadeus set designed by Tony Cisek is an artistic marvel to behold. The main pieces are several vertical arcs, which resemble components within a piano or the elegant shape of a harp. This musical motif captured visually on the stage is quite ingenious since music, mostly Mozart’s, is played often. The sound design by Sharath Patel is essential in that respect, because the crux of the play rests on how Salieri encounters Mozart’s music. Music thus can be regarded as a character itself.
In his stage director’s talk, Clifford said these vertical pieces represent the prison in Salieri’s mind. A cage-like configuration is accentuated by the great swatches of dynamic light and shadow managed by lighting designer Max Doolittle. I would add that the vertical aspects could also be viewed as a reminder of Salieri’s great and distant adversary, God. That directionality is mirrored further by Salieri’s anger through Peakes’ upward glances and hand gestures.
While an interior prison is at odds with the larger sets usually employed for Amadeus productions, it’s a fully realized conceptualization of the play as a whole. The concept aligns well with the structure of the play, which rests on the path of memories along which Salieri takes audiences. The physical stage apparatus itself is perfectly suited to the times Salieri glides in as participant and then to the side as a spectator, and further enables the audience to be privy to the innermost thoughts he shares in his narration. Indeed, there are a variety of ways to see the set, which tremendously enhances the viewing experience of this production.
Folger Theatre is a small and intimate venue. It’s easy to see the finer details of the sumptuous wigs and costumes brilliantly designed by Mariah Anzaldo Hale. The space feels spacious and grand as actors utilize the full expanse of the theater. Peakes often steps out as far as the sixth or seventh row of the audience as he delivers his lines. Other characters advance toward the stage from the rear of the theater, which keeps the events feeling immediate, vibrant, and exciting. Strains of Mozart’s recorded music and various sound effects emerge from all around the space, further deepening an entirely immersive evening. I challenge anyone to hear the music and go home without wanting to listen to Don Giovanni or The Magic Flute.
Check out Amadeus at Folger Theatre on 201 East Capitol Street, SE, Washington, DC, before the run concludes on December 22. Tickets may be purchased online, in person, or through a box office associate at (202) 544-7077.