CBT Cast Breathes Life Into Uninspired Material in 'Amadeus'

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Peter Shaffer’s Amadeus is one of the least inspired plays ever written on the subject of inspiration. At the Clarence Brown Theatre a group of highly overqualified directors, designers, actors, and musicians sew with all their stamina to make a silk purse out of Shaffer’s sow’s ear. It is a credit to their talents and efforts that the evening succeeds for as long and as well as it does.

With a central premise recycled from his earlier hit Equus—self-satisfied older man meets passionate younger man and, out of envy, vows to change him forever—Amadeus has always felt to me like second-hand goods. Like Equus, it’s heavy with monologues, and Salieri’s extended speeches often take the place of scenes that Shaffer could have dramatized. Most of Salieri’s monologues plow along by describing feelings Salieri rarely gets to demonstrate.

In turning to the specifics of this production, I must first cry, “Caveat emptor.” For four years, from 2005-09, I was resident stage manager for the Clarence Brown, so I know the University of Tennessee drama department well, and I collaborated on projects with many of the people whose work I am about to analyze. I’m going to make every attempt to keep a critical distance.

With so little dramatic material to work from, most of the artistic heavy lifting falls to the actor playing Salieri, and here the Clarence Brown is fortunate to have John Feltch returning to the stage. Last seen at the CBT in Anna Karenina, Feltch is an actor with a gift for subtle shadings and crystal clarity. As Salieri rarely leaves the stage during the show’s two-hour-and-45-minute running time, playing the part is akin to running a marathon with a Volkswagen strapped to your back. Feltch never flags, and he maintains a connection and commitment to Salieri from first moment to last.

If Salieri is the most exhausting role in Amadeus, Mozart is the most thankless. He makes a preposterous first impression, his dramatic arc is downward, and he never learns anything. But because Shaffer is not writing Mozart’s story, the character never comes across as Salieri’s dramatic equal. Unfortunately, actor Brian Sills doesn’t quite give the audience a clear sense of Mozart’s downward spiral. Neither his genius nor his tragedy makes a strong impression. And a minor technical quibble: Sills’ final scenes conveyed almost none of the physical pains that the play goes at great lengths to describe.

Actors in the smaller roles fare somewhat better. Amelia Mathews, as Mozart’s wife Constanze, starts a bit superficially, but she improves as her giddy schoolgirl manner gives way to the demanding hausfrau and finally to the ennobled “keeper of the legacy.” University of Tennessee faculty members Terry Weber (Emperor Joseph), David Kortemeier (Venticello I), and David Alley (Venticello II) breeze through their comic relief roles with a light touch.

Director Calvin MacLean’s productions for Clarence Brown have always been epic theater of the best kind: large in scale but strongly grounded in human emotions. Amadeus is no exception. The production is efficiently staged, the pacing is brisk, and his work with his acting company is exemplary. Every moment of the show is infused with intelligence and passion. MacLean clearly believes in the material, and even if I don’t, his vision makes the show worth watching.

The design team is mostly successful in manifesting that vision. Ron Keller’s set is big but remarkably unfussy. Using almost all the square footage of the Clarence Brown stage, Keller found a way to create intimate playing areas. John Horner’s lighting was astonishingly vivid; it had palpable texture, and his color palette (gold and amber but turning cold blue for Mozart’s death scene) enriched the story. Bill Black’s costumes were sumptuous and thoroughly appropriate (although I wished that Mozart’s wardrobe at the beginning was a little more outrageous, to set him apart from society and to foreshadow how far he would fall). Only Zach Williamson’s sound design didn’t quite hit the same heights. The Clarence Brown has notoriously tricky acoustics—strange dead spots and odd echoes. To balance actors with orchestra, voices would sometimes switch from unamplified to amplified as they talked, changing the voices’ point of origin; this happened often enough to be a tad disconcerting.

Oh, yes, and there was an orchestra onstage. While Amadeus doesn’t call for live music, clearly the addition of the incomparable Knoxville Symphony Orchestra elevated the evening. Their presence detracted nothing from the play going on around them, and they brought the music of Mozart to glorious life.

While I’m sure I’m not alone in hoping the Clarence Brown and the Knoxville Symphony collaborate again, my wish is that they pick a better, more interesting piece. May I suggest Every Good Boy Deserves Favour by Tom Stoppard and André Previn? In it, a political prisoner of a police state imagines he is the conductor of a symphony orchestra. Picking a piece like that would be, well, inspired.

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