Over the last 20 years, terms like "minimalist" and "essentialized" often described the work of local independent theater companies. Economic constraints have mandated considerable ingenuity—and often, cuts—in everything from crowd scenes and casting to costumes and sets. Organizations that can afford them, such as PlayMakers, N.C. State and Raleigh Little Theatre, have regularly dominated those fields.
Meanwhile, scrappy up-and-comers made austerity both a badge of honor and an aesthetic, emphasizing the integrity of their acting, direction and scripts—not a bad strategy, if you're forced to choose.
Then, groups like The Somnambulist Project and Paperhand Puppet Intervention began to incorporate elevated design in their work, inspiring followers including set designer Sonya Drum, puppeteer Torry Bend and video artist Jon Haas. And in a 2012 production of Richie, Little Green Pig broke new ground by collaborating with regional fashion designers.
AMADEUS, Leviathan Theatre Company's flagship production, continues this heartening trajectory. In a way, this vivid reimagining of Peter Shaffer's Tony-winning 1981 play and Miloš Forman's Oscar-winning 1984 film is as much visual art as theater—a startling showcase for costume designer Chelsea Kurtzman and mask-maker Wil Deedler. The story of Viennese court composer Antonio Salieri's vendetta against a bratty Mozart realizes company founder John Jimerson's dream of a Bacchanalian animal rite and director Jay O'Berski's vision of Hieronymus Bosch-meets-Robert Wilson, making Amadeus the most visually compelling work of the year.
The designers' stylized grotesques essentialize a series of characters, revealing a slow-witted barnyard aspect in Kaiser Joseph II (Tony Perucci) and a poisonous toad in Count Orsini-Rosenberg (Liam O'Neill), among others.
Painter Ray Caesar's enameled corruption and a Blade Runner quote figure in the visages of Mozart's wife (Molly Forlines) and the Venticelli town gossips (Caitlin Wells and Carly Prentis Jones). Baron van Swieten (Laurie Wolf) looks like an homage to Pink Floyd cartoonist Gerald Scarfe, and Klaus Maria Brandauer's Mephisto lurks in Salieri (Jimerson).
The imagery underlines that people are behaving like animals in the Viennese court.
In Salieri's cosmology, the most advanced artist must be the one closest to God. But when Mozart (a manic Jade Arnold) proves to be an intemperate man-child with sexual and scatological fixations, Salieri devotes himself to Mozart's destruction.
O'Berski foregrounds the prurient obsessions of the characters. When introducing his wife to his superiors, Mozart obliges them with enhanced peeks at her cleavage, and Salieri's brief descent into S&M has a comic aspect. Elsewhere, O'Berski focuses on the absurdity, awkwardness and tawdriness that make sexuality in this world conspicuously flat.
Despite Amadeus' visual strengths, Mozart's striking but unchanging costume and makeup largely obscure his inevitable dissolution. With the reduction or elimination of several sequences and characters and the all but total absence of a set, we wonder if parts of this production aren't too essentialized.
Still, plangent images linger long after the play is over. This Amadeus gives us a menagerie of enigmatic animals, apparently compelled to make beauty or consume it. They're just never entirely sure what it means once they've done so, or what comes next.
This article appeared in print with the headline "Shock me Amadeus"