Variations on villainy in the Folger Theatre’s ‘Amadeus’

Malice and murder take center stage as Helen Hayes Award-winner and master of mayhem Ian Merrill Peakes talks about other villains he’s played.

Villainy takes many forms. And Ian Merrill Peakes – now plotting revenge against a gifted rival in the Folger Shakespeare Theatre’s production of Amadeus – has played more than a few.

Ian Merrill Peakes in Peter Shaffer’s ‘Amadeus.’ On stage at Folger Theatre, November 5 – December 22, 2019. Photo by C. Stanley Photography.

His most recent venture into venom here in DC was last year, when he starred in the Folger production of Macbeth. (My colleague, Sophia Howes, described him in that role as a “first-rate classical actor,” with “a gift for playing troubled men.” Click here for that review.) 

Antonio Salieri—the role he currently inhabits—is clearly one of those “troubled men.” In fact, while Amadeus is a tribute to its hero, the supremely gifted Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, it is the villain, the jealous court composer Salieri, who is the star of this deliciously musical comedy of vengeance and vindication.

I asked Peakes about Salieri and some of the other rogues in his repertoire when we met shortly before the opening in one of the Folger’s tiny offices near the theater. And while the actor was exhausted, having been in rehearsals all day, he was ebullient over the idea of performing in a show that opened, to huge acclaim, though in slightly different form, in London in 1979.

 “Most people don’t realize that Peter Shaffer, the playwright, rewrote much of the script,” Peakes said, adding that even though Amadeus walked off with the Tony Award for Best Play in 1981, following its New York debut, the author continued revising it for the next 20 years. 

Although current productions incorporate all the changes—including the way in which the play ends—the rivalry between Salieri and Mozart, played here by Samuel Adams, remains the same. (Of course, the rivalry is fictitious, but there is nothing in history to say that it didn’t happen!)

Ian Merrill Peakes and Samuel Adams in Peter Shaffer’s ‘Amadeus.’ On stage at Folger Theatre, November 5 – December 22, 2019. Photo by C. Stanley Photography.

Looking back at the villains he’s played—and Macbeth is just the most recent—Peakes zeroed in on Iago, the evil-doer who does in Othello, as the one most resembling Salieri.

“Salieri and Iago are both motivated by envy,” he said, adding that jealousy drives both of them to become masters of manipulation, able to torment their rivals by pretending to be loyal.   

Both are ambitious, and both find it hard to believe that men who appear to be inferior—Othello, the dark-skinned moor, and Mozart, the ill-mannered upstart—might actually be more deserving than they.

“On the other hand, there are quite a few differences between the two,” said Peakes, who played Iago at the Folger in 2011, and who knows the role inside and out.  

“Iago has sociopathic tendencies,” he said. “He is genuinely evil. He knows what he’s doing, and he is unrepentant.” 

Salieri, however, is the opposite. He is profoundly repentant. But his wrath is turned inward and against God. Like Iago, he begins with jealousy. But then his anger turns into a religious rage. 

‘Mozart is a whoremonger,’ he shouts, whereas he, Salieri, remains virtuous. At one point, Salieri points to Mozart and says, ‘You are an instrument of God.’ It’s unfair, and it’s that injustice that triggers his rage.  

According to Peakes, Salieri is not evil. He’s jealous. And why not? He was the court composer, appointed by the emperor, and might have been the best of his time had he not had to share that time with a genius.

“After Mozart’s death, Salieri was considered passé,” the actor said. “So while he didn’t actually murder Mozart, he sees himself as responsible.”

One of the many ironies of the tale is that—in Amadeus at least—Mozart’s brilliance was not really recognized until after his early death. In that sense, Salieri created exactly what he most feared. 

Asked what was the most difficult aspect of playing Salieri, Peakes laughed. “It’s exhausting,” he said. “I’m on stage all the time, from beginning to end, since the play is a flashback.”

His character, he added, has to go from being an old man, dressed in a nightgown, to a young man, dressed for court, as the emperor’s composer. “The only break I get is when I’m listening to what the others have to say. But even when I’m listening, I’m sweating under this heavy nightgown on top of an elaborate 18th-century costume.”

Another difficult aspect of the role has been learning to speak in languages he doesn’t know. As Salieri, he is obliged to speak Italian, French, and German on stage.

Luckily, the director, Richard Clifford, understands how to help an actor overcome such hurdles. “He’s very smart and very funny,” Peakes said. “He sets the tone and creates the mood, but then he allows the actors to find the role.”  

Of course, Peakes acknowledged, it helps that, in this case, the director is also an actor. (In fact, Clifford performed in Amadeus at the Chichester Theatre Festival in 2014, and had the opportunity to work with Shaffer, who died two years later at the age of 90.)

Learning from other actors comes naturally to Peakes, since theater is in his DNA. (Click here for a story about the family and their roles in last year’s Macbeth.) 

While Peakes, now 50, is scowling his way through Amadeus, Karen, his wife, is back home, in a suburb of Philadelphia, where she is recording the poems of Emily Dickinson for an audiobook. Owen, who played Fleance in Macbeth, is in sixth grade. Two months ago, all three were in Winter’s Tale at the Santa Cruz Shakespeare Festival in California. 

Hopefully, the three will be back in DC sometime soon. In the meantime, Ian Merrill Peakes can be seen – in all his rage and underneath his double layers of costume – on stage at the Folger.

Running Time: Approximately two hours and 45 minutes including one intermission. 

Amadeus plays through December 22, 2019, at the Folger Theatre, 201 East Capitol Street, SE in Washington, DC. For tickets, call the box office at (202) 544-7077, or purchase them online.

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