The Clap

Bela Lugosi and a young Benito Mussolini in the Guthrie's Amadeus

If I can say nothing else about Minnesota theater audiences, I can say this: Boy, do they love to laugh. In the darkness of the theater, they pitch back their heads and let out great roaring bellows where a small chuckle, delicately delivered into the palm of the hand, would suffice. At the start of a play, they laugh when the theater delivers its recorded announcement, cautioning against the ringing of cellular phones and the unwrapping of hard candy. They guffaw at each face pulled by actors, each comical musical sting, and each pregnant pause. I, for one, am sick of it, and see it as a sort of regional neurosis, exactly paralleling our need to lunge to our feet at the end of any musical performance, no matter how tepid, and regale the curtain with a thunderous ovation. When the occasion rises that actually demands an ovation, we will be forced to climb up on our seats and throw our undergarments onstage.

Stop it, and I mean it. As an example, the current Guthrie production, Amadeus, is not an especially funny play. Certainly it has moments of levity. Playwright Peter Shaffer, when he is not constructing dramas about mad boys stabbing the eyes out of horses (as in Equus), has shown himself to have an infrequent streak of gaiety to him--his double bill of one-acts titled The Private Ear, The Public Eye is quite frolicsome. And Amadeus is not without humor, either, but neither is there anything in it that would really invite booming peals of laughter. Shaffer's characterization of Mozart has a brash sort of mirth to it, particularly in this Joe Dowling production, where Mozart is played by T.R. Knight. Shaffer presents the composer as an idiot savant, bawdy and infantile, unable to restrain himself from blurting out caustic, uncivil comments to his social betters, reminding them that they are not anywhere near the genius he is. Knight plays Mozart as more savant than idiot, and thank goodness, as Tom Hulce's performance in the film adaptation of the play had Mozart doing everything but drooling and finger painting.

Knight, by comparison, gives us a Mozart who is so moved by the boundless possibilities of music that he must prattle on about the subject at every opportunity, which leads him to make extravagant, ill-considered comments about the questionable nature of French musicians and Italian composers. And with each of these comments, the opening-night audience roared out its laughter, and I had to sit on my hands to restrain myself. I was trapped, you see, in a large throng of theatergoers who were determined to demonstrate how thoroughly they got the play by making as much hysterical noise as possible every time Mozart opened his mouth and said something a little impudent. (If the audience were just preternaturally supportive and charitable--rather than congenitally insecure--this behavior would be far less cloying.)

Matters were not helped by Antonio Salieri, the play's true protagonist and the conniving nemesis of Mozart. The role is a somewhat thankless one--after all, it was a Guthrie alumnus, F. Murray Abraham, who played the role in the film, won a Best Supporting Actor Oscar for his efforts, and then promptly fell off the face of the earth. (Unless you happened to catch him yelling at Sean Connery in Finding Forrester last year. You didn't? No, I didn't either.)

Shaffer has created a meaty role in Salieri: Here is a man who recognizes his own infinite mediocrity, and also sees the genius in Mozart. And so he's fated to spend most of the play sabotaging the younger composer in a pique of jealousy. Well, more properly, he spends most of the play talking about how he sabotaged Mozart, providing a relentless narration to the events of the story. He even goes so far as to interrupt the action onstage to add an instructional comment, seeming like some frock coat-clad bubble from VH1's Pop-Up Video. As played by Charles Janasz, Salieri has a sense of humor about the whole affair--in fact, he's positively gleeful about his misdeeds, even as he draws a knife to his throat and begs the long-dead Mozart to forgive him. The audience laughed at this, and then they laughed some more, and Janasz positively seemed to be winking at them, as though they were all in on a very merry joke. I found the whole experience somewhat unnerving, particularly since Janasz, in a cape and evening wear, a medallion strung around his neck, his black hair swept back into a widow's peak, is a dead ringer for Bela Lugosi. I know the play, and was still surprised that Salieri didn't exact his revenge on Mozart by chewing on the man's Adam's apple.

The opening-night Guthrie audience was slow to climb to their feet at the play's end, perhaps puzzling about whether Amadeus was a musical, and whether therefore a standing ovation would be required. After all, there is much music in the play, and characters occasionally burst into song onstage, which is the sort of thing that happens in a musical. Eventually they did struggle into an upright position, beating their hands together as loudly as possible.

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