“The Amateurs” written by Jordan Harrison and Directed by Jason King Jones is presently playing at The Olney Theatre Center’s Mulitz-Gudelsky Theatre Lab through April 6, 2020. This is a dark comedy that follows a group of 14th Century actors under the cloud of the Black Death that ravaged Europe during the Middle Ages. Little did Olney Theatre Center know that when the show opened, we would be facing our own 21st Century pandemic.
Here is some background about the play. In the Middle Ages, troupes of actors would travel by wagon from village to village performing what are call Morality Plays. The plays had Biblical themes. It was really these small groups of thespians that bridged the time of Greek and Roman theatre to the plays of the Renaissance which included those of Boccaccio, Moliere, Marlowe and, of course, Shakespeare. Some feel it was the plague itself that led the way from religious themed art to humanism and more secular paintings, drama and music.
“The Amateurs” focuses on Noah’s Wife, a character in an actual Middle Age’s Morality Play called “Noah’s Flood.’ The scene in this Morality Play when Noah and God tell Noah’s wife to join the rest of the family on the Ark, she refuses, unlike the Biblical narration. This is the genesis of Harrison’s script. It is a realistic view of the story of the Ark, and, perhaps, the first seed of modern drama.
It is also a play of these ancestral performers who have chosen acting as their profession. However, they are forced to deal with the heavier themes of survivor’s guilt and how communities react during a crisis. When the “The Amateurs” was written, Harrison was still reeling from the HIV outbreak of the latter part of the 20th Century and even early 21st Century. Many who survived that disease, like those who survived the Holocaust, have very deep-rooted emotional reactions to their ordeal and inexplicable good luck to have lived while loved ones died.
The play is in three parts. The first and the last focus on the troupe of performers traveling from village to village to survive while facing the bigger issue of the Black Plague. The play works best when it spotlights these thespians, and one scenic designer, trying to just make a go out of life. It opens on an ominous note with the death of one of the troupe. From that moment we watch just hoping that they manage to survive as individuals and as an entity.
Their survival is managed by adding a member or having members change their roles in the imaginary company. It also has great humor. The “set designer’s” dove flies precariously above the stage. A large scroll of crudely drawn animals is used to show us ark passengers both human and animal. Very comical, sometimes meant to seem frightening to the Middle Ages’ audience, the props and masks add a great deal of lightness to this show about a very dark subject. In the third section the friendship and caring by the principles to each other which serve as a microcosm of our society.
The center section is a bit unusual. The actor playing Gregory (Evan Casey), the set designer, removes his costume and becomes the voice of the playwright, explaining why he wrote the play and the connection to the AIDS epidemic. After his long monologue the actress who plays Hollis, Noah’s Wife, becomes herself, Emily Townley, and tells us how as an actress she learned to find motivation in even the smallest role by giving her character some power in her own mind. In the case of her recollection, it is Mrs. Cratchit from “A Christmas Carol.” She uses this to explain why Noah’s wife may have been given that unusual piece of dialogue when she refuses to go on the Ark.
This whole section seemed to slow things a little, and I am not sure why it was needed. The audience seemed to understand the connections to pandemics which are also explained in the Playbill. The section went on for over twenty minutes almost in the middle of the production. I would have liked Harrison to be more succinct. I also suspect the audience would have been more attentive if they had performed it after an Intermission. That is not the fault of the actors or director, but I believe, a small flaw in the script.
‘The Amateurs’ is a play that is so relevant to the present, it should be seen by anyone who needs to deal with fear, hate and false hope in this time of our own worldwide exigency. It puts our worries into perspective.
The acting was first rate. Casey as the supposed idiot, Gregory, who one suspects is a great deal smarter than the other characters believe, is endearing. Casey also becomes Harrison for us as he peels off his costume stating, “Maybe, we can go off-script.” He does this very well by reflecting the raw emotions of the playwright.
Townley plays Hollis, the bereaved loyal sibling, and a good friend to Rona (Rachel Zampelli), the other woman in the group, and to The Physic (James Konicek), the newest member of the group. Townley makes us feel great empathy toward Hollis and later to the actress, Emily, in the second section.
Konicek gives a superior performance as the secretive and amorphous newcomer who slowly reveals his identity to Hollis and to the audience.
John Keabler plays Brom who plays Noah. Keabler also plays the Duke’s liaison to the group when the troupe goes to perform for the royal. However, he is most powerful as Brom who gives the audience quick insight as to why Brom has become an itinerant actor, struggling to stay alive.
Rona, as played by Zampelli, is also a character that takes us by surprise. Women today have a hard time in the performing arts, but in the Middle Ages, it was life threatening.
Finally, Michael Russotto plays Larking who runs the troupe and plays God in “Noah’s Flood.” Larking is really the fool of the play but the strength of the group. It is a hard pair of characteristics to pull off but Russotto does it smoothly.
Jones’ direction of the play with a play within is clever and brings out the writer’s point of view. However, the middle section, although it does make some very important points, is really two long monologues. Jones does his best to keep the pace moving and getting too ponderous.
The set by Misha Kachman seems to be just an old wooden stage and a wagon. However, we are treated to some Middle Age “magic” as the wagon becomes the ark. There are also doors in the stage that spew out smoke from a campfire and dirt for a grave on the roadside. There are snow and flying doves. The ending also has a powerful visual message due to Kachman’s imagination.
The Lighting Design by Colin K. Bills conveys the dreariness of the character’s lives but is bright enough to illuminate the actors and the set.
Pei Lee’s costumes are not just in period, but convey the poverty of the troupe members and also add to some of the humor via the costumes from the Morality Plays they perform.
Karin Graybash’s Sound Design also helps define the playwright’s intent.
“The Amateurs” is a play that is so relevant to the present, it should be seen by anyone who needs to deal with fear, hate and false hope in this time of our own worldwide exigency. It puts our worries into perspective.
Running Time: One hour and 40 minutes. No Intermission.
Advisory: “The Amateurs” is not for children under 13 and is really for mature audiences due to language, sexual situations, religious references and frightening scenes.
“The Amateurs” will be playing at Oley Theatre Center’s Mulitz-Gudelsky Theatre Lab through April 6, 2020. There will be afterward discussions following Saturday matinee performances March 14, 21 and 28. For information on this show and others go to their website. Tickets are available online.
There will be and Audio-described performance for the blind and visually impaired on Wednesday, March 18 at 7:45 pm and a signed-interpreted performance on Thursday, March 26 at 7:45 pm. For information on these performances contact their Patron Services Manager.
Note: Due to the present Covid-19 virus, the Olney Theatre Center asks you to observe normal precautions and stay home if you are sick or think you might be ill. They have instituted a liberal exchange policy on tickets. If you need to reschedule call their Box Office at 301-924-3400.