Mozart and Salieri face off in Round House Theatre’s riveting ‘Amadeus’

Edward Gero has been playing outsize haunted figures lately — Scrooge and Sweeney Todd, to name only two — and the deep glower he shoots at the audience early in “Amadeus” is thrilling. The lingering black glance suggests volumes of discontent, and the hint of a sneer foreshadows a lacerating self-loathing.

That’s all it takes for the audience at the Round House Theatre to happily settle in for Gero’s utterly commanding turn as Antonio Salieri, the frustratingly mediocre composer burned up by envy of a genius nincompoop named Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. Peter Shaffer’s 1979 play is an entertaining speculation that Salieri sabotaged Mozart’s career and contributed to his early death, and Gero takes to the role’s soaring, rail-at-God theatrics with zeal.

Gero’s nearly ideal counterpoint is Sasha Olinick, who plays Shaffer’s infantile version of Mozart with a wonderfully intuitive feel for the character’s potty-mouth tantrums and blissed-out musicality. It’s practically cartoonish, the way Shaffer overdrew his opposites, but Olinick doesn’t run from the material. He’s happy to clown like a braying adolescent (and that includes the famous giddy caw of a laugh that is one of the play’s trademarks).

But Olinick, droopy socks and all, is also incisive with the Mozartean intellect. Every now and then the genius part shoots through and paralyzes the stuffed shirts in the Austrian court, with Gero’s open-mouthed Salieri the most astonished and appalled of all.

Sounds like “Amadeus,” right? Indeed, most of the notes in this familiar piece register in Mark Ramont’s stately production, from Salieri’s rhapsodic reactions to Mozart’s music (which gloriously fills the theater in Matthew M. Nielson’s pinpoint sound design) to the cardboard figures at court (the most pleasing in this case being Floyd King’s tidy comic work as the cultural simpleton Joseph II, emperor of Austria). The increasingly stark shadows of Matthew Richards’s lighting design add a nice cloak-and-dagger quality as the once devout Salieri’s schemes grow sinister; the slight echo as Salieri confesses to us in an empty cathedral nicely sets the stage for a confrontation with the divine.

There are times, though, when the show smacks of reenactment, as if Ramont were reluctant to try anything really interesting with such an iconic play. (Curiously, it’s the second time lately — the 2009 “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” is the other instance — that the troupe has taken on pieces that became big Milos Forman films.) James Kronzer’s towering columns and grandly patterned floor provide instant scale on the wide stage, but it’s not a space that the show actually makes much use of. The period costumes add to the conservative look — none of the punk-tinged wigs of earlier versions. The majestic pacing is great — Ramont rushes nothing and forces nothing — but Shaffer’s inventions invite panache, while this show as a whole plays it safe.

That can’t be done with the leading roles, of course. Gero’s prowling, brooding Salieri is a silky marvel one moment and an exploding, crumbling madman the next, while Olinick frolics and pouts with splendid abandon as Mozart. Both performers play the script’s high drama and delightful laughter like virtuosos. Ramont hands these actors the stage, and they seize it.

Pressley is a freelance writer.

Amadeus

by Peter Shaffer. Directed by Mark Ramont. Costumes, Bill Black; wigs, Heather Fleming. With Laura C. Harris, Steven Carpenter, JJ Kaczynski, Caroline Mahoney, Sabrina Mandell, Scott McCormick, Toby Mulford, KenYatta Rogers and Jefferson A. Russell. About two hours and 45 minutes. Through June 5 at Round House Theatre Bethesda, 4545 East-West Hwy., Bethesda. Call 240-644-1100 or visit www.roundhousetheatre.org.

First Post byline, 1992; covering theater for the Post since 1999. His book "American Playwriting and the Anti-Political Prejudice" will be published by Palgrave Macmillan in 2014.
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