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Amadeus, by Peter Shaffer
Surprisingly Unsurprising: "Amadeus" at the GSF
Friday, June 22, 2001
In a recent AJC article, Georgia Shakespeare Festival Director Richard Garner politely said that he has “never been surprised” by any production at downtown competitor the Atlanta Shakespeare Company. He meant that ASC’s conventional style hinders the creativity (and enjoyability) of their work. Though he didn’t come out and say it, he implied that because of the Georgia Shakespeare Festival’s comparatively modern “take” on it’s classical repertoire, their productions are fresher, closer to the moment, and more novel.

If the GSF’s current production of Peter Shaffer’s “Amadeus” is any test of that statement, it’s hardly true. Garner is correct in pointing out the predictability of the Shakespeare Tavern’s work. (It can be fun for the uninitiated, but tends to stale after several visits). However as we sat in the audience of the Conant Theater during the first few minutes of the opening night of “Amadeus,” my wife and I sighed as we realized we were in for a very familiar experience. I can sum it up like this:

The GSF has GOT to start hiring some new, different actors and directors.

My wife and I have been attending the summer festival since we moved to Atlanta about 5 years ago and while we enjoyed it so much early on, we’re finding more and more that the sense of “surprise” that Garner referred to is slipping away for us too. The actors in the company are good, but we see them over and over in the same kinds of parts. For instance, we enjoyed Tim McDonough so much several years ago as a crotchety old buffoon in “School for Scandal,” but have since seen him so often playing parts like this (he plays the crotchety old buffoon Rosenberg in “Amadeus”) that I know what to expect from his part as soon as he walks onto the stage. The same is true of Chris Kaiser (the villain), John Ammerman (the heavy), Kathleen McManus (the shrew), Allen O’Reilly (the sidekick), Brad Sherrill (the pensive leading man), and to an increasing degree Saxon Palmer (the passionate leading man) and Janice Akers (the queen). I wonder if these actors are getting tired of playing the same kinds of parts every summer.

We were really hopeful that “Amadeus” would be different. It’s a modern play, faster-moving and riskier. But under Karen Robinson’s mostly uninspired staging, it settles into a mild, even-tempered rhythm. Partly at fault are Ammerman (as Antonio Salieri) and James Andrew Butz (Mozart), who seem content to keep their characters at arm’s length, paying more attention to their speech patterns than to each other. This Salieri and Mozart, admittedly very complex parts, seem two-dimensional. The actors comment more on their parts than they actually “do” them. The bright spot in the evening was Jessie Andary as Mozart’s wife Constanze. Andary seems to understand the style of the play, balancing her performance between a classical artifice and a believable human heartbeat.

It’s possible that the root of our unrest was Robinson’s direction, which itself has a predictable pattern. Robinson plays things safe, and the results can sometimes be muddy. (With some notable exceptions. Her “School for Scandal” that I mentioned was crisp and funny; “Tartuffe” was naughty but tidy). But too often Robinson ignores the emotional arc of the story and leads her actors to simulate turmoil rather than engage it. Whether she’s directing comedy or tragedy, the result is sometimes uniform and uninteresting.

My wife and I were laughing a little in the car driving back to Douglasville where we live, because we feel like we “know” these performers so well after 5 years. Maybe that’s an indication that we need to move on to other theaters in the area. After half a decade with the GSF, I think we’re ready to be surprised again.

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