The Rousuck Review: "Amadeus" | WYPR

The Rousuck Review: "Amadeus"

Sep 22, 2014


Bruce Randolph Nelson (l) and Stanton Nash (r)
Credit Richard Anderson

Music, madness, Mozart! Theater critic J. Wynn Rousuck reviews "Amadeus" at Center Stage in Baltimore. The production runs from September 13 to October 12. 

The Rousuck Review: "Amadeus" at Center Stage.

In Peter Shaffer’s 1979 play, “Amadeus,” the Emperor of Austria repeatedly exclaims with joy: “Fetes and fireworks.” Center Stage’s production gets the celebratory fetes just right, but the fireworks are a bit muted.

The air of celebration begins as soon as you enter the front door. In an almost environmental approach, set designer Timothy R. Mackabee – a Baltimore native – has created an 18th Century room, smack-dab in the middle of the lobby, complete with bewigged, costumed actors. 

Salieri starts out a feeble old man, sharing bitter reminiscences. Baltimore actor Bruce Randolph Nelson captures the character’s decrepitude and artfully transitions to the younger Salieri in flashbacks.  In his initial interaction with Mozart, Salieri plays a little march that he’s composed in the prodigy’s honor.  Later in the scene, Mozart – exuberantly portrayed by Stanton Nash – sits down at the keyboard and improves the march. Nash’s Mozart whoops with glee at his own skill; Nelson’s expression of disdain increases with each embellishment.

Shaffer’s fictionalized characters are a study in opposites. Salieri strived for a virtuous life, dedicated to honoring God with his music. From early childhood, Mozart was forced by his father to display his gifts in public – and he has remained childish as an adult. When we first see Mozart -- thanks to eavesdropping Salieri --  he’s playing a lewd, scatological game of cat and mouse with his soon-to-be wife.

Unlike the politically savvy courtiers, Mozart has no filter – a shortcoming Stanton Nash conveys with relish.  As Mozart’s fortunes decline, Nash shows the great composer unraveling. But as Salieri’s fortunes increase – along with his deviousness and  disillusionment with God – Nelson’s manner seems largely unchanged. David Burdick’s detailed costumes, however, enhance the storytelling -- Salieri’s wardrobe gets more ornate as Mozart’s gets more drab.

Salieri may be the only man in Europe who recognizes Mozart’s genius – and his own mediocrity by comparison. But Nelson’s envious Salieri is more matter-of-fact than haunted, guilty or enraged. 

Director Kwame Kwei-Armah carries the environmental feel of the lobby into the theater. He positions the ensemble in the aisles, in the balcony as well as on both levels of the two-tiered set. Are we the whispering Viennese gossips or Salieri’s confessors? In this interpretation, we are both.

Center Stage’s “Amadeus” distinguishes itself with stylistic staging, but while the trappings feel fresh, the play does not. Still, in today’s celebrity-obsessed culture, one aspect of “Amadeus” may be timelier than ever. Salieri asked God for fame, not talent, and fame can only take you so far. Want proof? Even this play about Salieri is called: “Amadeus.”

-J. Wynn Rousuck