Andrew Hamm: the Bipolar Express

Ruminations on theatre, music, and just about anything else that crosses my bipolar brain.

Saturday, January 10, 2009


Every actor has a list: a collection of the roles they most want to play. These are the roles that thrill us, that intrigue us, that challenge us, maybe even the roles that we alone know we could play even though no one else thinks we could pull it off. Sometimes they are the roles that got away, or the roles we watched another great actor perform. When we check the audition notices and see that a local company is producing a play with one of our list roles in it, our hearts beat a little faster and we start to dream. We may even decide that we wouldn't accept another role in the show, simply because the heartbreak of missed opportunity could interfere with our work.

My list is long and eclectic, from the classical to the contemporary, straight plays and musicals. The double-H's: Harold Hill in The Music Man and Henry Higgins in My Fair Lady. Both Freddy and Anatoly in Chess, both Jesus and Judas in Jesus Christ Superstar and Che in Evita. Edmund in King Lear and Bolingbroke in Richard II. Dysart in Equus, the Stage Manager in Our Town, Picasso at the Lapin Agile and Alceste in The Misanthrope. Mark in Rent (for which I was called back in New York in 1998, a pure delight). Both Lee and Austin in True West, preferably alternating night-by-night. Father Flote in Red Noses, Lopakhin in The Cherry Orchard, Rakitin in A Month in the Country. I could go on and on. I dream a lot.

I know I will never get to play all, or likely even a fraction of these roles, though I have been able to check a few off my list in recent years: Romeo and Juliet's Mercutio, Julius Caesar's Cassius, and Twelfth Night's Feste. And my jones to perform in Othello, As You Like It, Doctor Faustus, and A Midsummer Night's Dream has been more than satisfied by directing those shows.

It was a thrill to read Scott Wichmann's blog and talk with the man himself last Fall as he tackled one of the roles on his list, Richard III. His tone of voice, in writing and in person, was different in approaching that particular role. He knew it was a dream come true from the start. I can't help but feel like now it's my turn. This winter, one of my greatest theatrical dreams is coming true as Richmond Shakespeare gives me the opportunity not only to play one of the roles on my list, but the one at the very top: Antonio Salieri in Peter Shaffer's Amadeus.

Amadeus has been my favorite contemporary play ever since I read it in high school. The drama, the language, the moral fireworks and the musical passion resonate in my soul like a bell, with Mozart's innocent arrogance and Salieri's unfulfillable envy both reflecting aspects of my own character that I am most ashamed of. Each of the two lead roles is a massive undertaking, with Mozart in many ways so close to home that I could almost play the role simply by memorizing the lines and getting on the stage opening night. (Well, not exactly. I don't talk about poop quite as much as Mozart does.) But it is the towering emptiness of Salieri that intrigues me more than any other character I have ever read.

In the next weeks, I intend to write more on the process of Amadeus than I ever have on a show I've blogged, if for no other reason than so I can look back, read it, and remember how I got to play my dream role.

First of all, my deep thanks to Grant Mudge for giving me the opportunity. It was almost three years ago that I broached the subject of Amadeus with Grant, when I had just come on board as Richmond Shakespeare's Director of Training. My suggestion was twofold: first, that the aesthetic of RS's five-actor format would be intriguing in the context of non-Elizabethan scripts, and second, that Amadeus would make a magnificent contribution to the Acts of Faith Festival.

The five-actor format, Richmond Shakespeare's calling card for over a decade, strips away layers of technical elements with the intention of giving theatre a greater immediacy and audience connection. The goal is to streamline the storytelling by relying on the tools of actor, director, and occasionally musician. It isn't that we don't like sets and lights, or that we denigrate their contribution to theatrical storytelling. We simply choose to focus on the actor's body and voice and the text, and to mine every ounce of potential from their skillful engagement. In Amadeus, we have a play that already relies heavily on actors and costumes (our favorite technical element) to mark the passage of time and change of status while eschewing period-specific scenery and lighting. We also have a play with seven principal characters, making doubling those actors with smaller roles very easy.

Beginning with a cast of seven, Director James Alexander Bond (as seen on Letterman) requested that we expand the cast to nine, allowing Salieri's gossip-gathering Venticelli to exist as two separate characters rather than doubles played by the actors portraying Strack and Van Sweiten. (This is a fairly important addition: it is difficult for the gossip gathereres to overhear characters who they can't share the stage with because they share bodies with them.) This puts Amadeus somewhere between the pocket-sized casts of five actors and the large company (for us) of 2 Henry IV's 16. By contrast, last year's Hamlet and 2007's Richard II had casts of 10. Spring's As You Like It was performed with five actors, Summer's with 16.

As for the show's Acts of Faith connection, it may be the most explicitly faith-focused show we have ever performed. Our previous festival offerings of The Merchant of Venice, Othello, Doctor Faustus, and Measure for Measure were of course all strongly faith-focused in their ways, from the anti-Semitic/anti-Christian conflicts of Merchant to Desdemona's Christlike forgiveness in Othello to Faustus' infernal setting and Measure's blatantly sinful hypocrisy. But Amadeus tops them all with an antihero who declares war against God for the divine sin of giving His greatest gift to a man deemed by Salieri as unworthy of it.

In the words of Peter Hall, the play's director both in its original incarnation and its 1999 revival, "Amadeus is probably the most successful serious play of the last half century. It has triumphed everywhere." On top of that, the film won a slew of Academy Awards, and featured iconic performances by Tom Hulce, Elizabeth Berridge, and of course F. Murray Abraham, whose nose I am not worthy to blow. In addition to Abraham's flawless performance, Salieri has been played by Paul Scofield, Ian McKellan, Brian Bedford and David Suchet just for starters. (The list of famous Mozarts is pretty impressive, too.) Invariably, when people find out we're doing Amadeus, the first question is "Who's playing Salieri?"

"Me," I answer, trying to keep my grin from splitting my face wide open.

I really thought I would feel intimidated or afraid of this, but I don't. I've wanted to play this part since I was 16 years old, and I've been thinking about it for a very long time. I know the show is in the best possible hands with James Bond (as seen on Letterman) directing it, and the cast is anchored by performers I trust completely and look forward to seeing every night (Liz Blake as Constanze, Cynde Liffick as Emperor Joseph), young talent we know we can rely on for energy and ideas (Katie Ford as Strack, David Janosik and Jake Allard as the Venticelli), and newcomers to Richmond Shakespeare whom I can't wait to introduce our audiences to (Jamie Reese as Rosenberg, Joseph Sultani as Van Sweiten, and of course Mike Hamilton as Mozart). With RTCC Award winner Becky Cairns and Annie Hoskins designing the costumes, I have no fears. I've been waiting two decades for this, and the company matches my wildest expectations.

Amadeus opens on the portentious Friday the 13th of February (preview on the 12th), and runs through March 8th. Stay tuned for more gushing blogs.

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  • At 1/13/2009 8:21 AM , Blogger Frank Creasy said...

    What a great post here Andrew. I'm sorry my own theatre commitments will prevent me from seeing Amadeus, but I'm happy for you to play a dream role; it was a joy to work with Scott on one of his own dream roles in Richard III.

    For my part, my list is very short indeed. Sadly, a few of those opportunities have forever passed me by, such as McMurphy in "Cuckoo's Nest" (if it ever comes around again, it will be much too late for me). On the other hand, some roles I had never imagined to be "dream roles" came my way by serendipity: Max Prince in "Laughter on the 23rd Floor", Kipps in "The Woman in Black", Hieronimo in "The Spanish Tragedy". I might even add Toby Belch in "Twelfth Night".

    I suppose this does inform and educate the actor to accept that a "dream role" may never have been on your list, but may come your way nonetheless. Perhaps the real lesson here is that an actor's dream role is the one they're about to perform - because getting paid to do something you love so much is, indeed, a dream come true.


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