By Jordan Harrison
Directed by Oliver Butler
Reviewed by David Roberts
Theatre Reviews Limited
Whether medieval or modern, no plague is comfortable. The first part of “The Amateurs,” currently playing at Vineyard Theatre, is uncomfortable in a different way and the audience wonders, “Can this play be as amateurish as it appears. What is the Vineyard thinking?” As it turns out, the iconic Off-Broadway theatre is thinking outside-the-box and out with the fourth wall, inviting the audience into a rigorous session of metacognition: how do theatre professionals think they make theatre successfully? Should actors be thinking about how they do what they do when they are doing it? And playwright Jordan Harrison uses the story of a medieval itinerant troupe of actors attempting to outrun the “Black Death” ravaging fourteenth-century Europe to address these essential questions.
Larking (Thomas Jay Ryan) does his best to interest his intrepid troupe to improve their craft as they rehearse their play “Noah’s Flood” for presentation before the Duke in two weeks’ time. Larking is hoping that an audience before the Duke of Travo and a successful performance by the troupe will convince the Duke to allow the actors to live within the Duke’s village and avoid death by plague. Mr. Harrison also alludes to the HIV/AIDS plague and the quest for safe spaces and cures.
In the midst of the slow-moving narrative in Act One, secrets are revealed about Rona’s (Jennifer Kim) pregnancy, assumptions are made about the possible father of the child, members of the cast die from the plague, sexual identities are revealed, and a stranger (The Psysic played by Greg Keller) enters the encampment concealing his own agenda in the quest for safety. Some of these secrets are revealed in two well-staged intercessory prayer scenes. Rona prays to St. Felicitas to make her a virgin again, or if that is “asking too much,” at least to “make him a boy.” Brom (Kyle Beltran) begs St. Theresa to help him forget Henry whom he assumes God took back to “wash him clean” of him. And Larking prays to both Saints Dominic and Cosmas to help his troupe “to act well.”
In Act Two, Jordan Harrison decides to break the fourth wall. The actor who portrays Gregory (Michael Cyril Creighton) takes center stage and launches on an extended monologue about the provenance of his fear of being gay, his fear of AIDS, the historical development of “individualism,” and assorted other topics. He ends his exposition with, “This is all to say that I didn’t sit down to write a play about Mr. Goldsworthy, or the Bubonic plague, even. No, for some reason I was interested in a small strange scene from the 14th century morality play “Noah’s Flood.”
Dissecting the scene between Noah (Brom/Kyle Beltran) and his “unnamed” wife (Hollis/Quincy Tyler Bernstine), “the director” links namelessness with powerlessness – a sort of plague of humankind. This discussion is valuable and raises the questions outlined in the first paragraph of this review; however, the need for the lengthy first act becomes questionable as does the playwright’s choice to use this vehicle to make his important arguments.
Under Oliver Butler’s direction, the actors wrestle with the plays disparate themes (perhaps too many unresolved conflicts?) with honesty. Happy Endings, guilt, fear, catharsis – all get bandied about at the play’s end with more questions raised than answers given. Whether catharsis is “innately complacent” (Playwright) or “delicious” will be up to the audience to decide. We are all, after all, amateurs at this humanity gig.