The Amateurs Review: Actors Escaping the Black Plague; Artists Contemplating Art

The Black Plague has just claimed another victim among the 14th century acting troupe rehearsing “Noah’s Flood,” when the playwright comes on stage to explain what he’s trying to do with “The Amateurs,” so that nobody else will walk out.

The speaker is not really the playwright, Jordan Harrison, and nobody was walking out. But the interruption does offer a break from the stilted verses of the medieval morality play, stiffly performed by a group of medieval actors whose off-stage vanities and rivalries are far more dramatic.  The set-up is clever and accomplished; grim, sure, but also funny, well-designed, thought-provoking….yet, truth be told, maybe getting a little…tedious.

That’s the way of “The Amateurs,” which packs enticing tidbits of history and philosophy and meta-theatrical noodling; amusing in its anachronisms, and serious about its musings – but, yes, a complicated show that might indeed have provoked some walk-outs, if there had been an intermission.

The mid-play break from the 14th century allows two members of the company, first Michael Cyril Creighton, portraying Harrison, and then Quincy Tyler Bernstine, portraying herself, to step into the naturalistic acting style of the present day. Creighton as the playwright talks about the AIDS crisis in personal terms. Bernstine as herself talks about the challenges of performing – how she made playing Mrs. Cratchet bearable by imagining she was in charge. “The Amateurs” is implicitly asking us to see the parallels between the medieval and modern eras.

But the playwright (both the real one and the one on stage) is also explicitly asking us to see how things changed – how in some ways, the 14th century was a pivotal moment in history: “It’s important to mention that, in the Middle Ages, people didn’t think of themselves as “I” in the same way we do today. The concept of the individual as we know it hadn’t been invented.”

This makes anachronistic the interaction among the medieval company members – the bickering, the envy, the lust, the mourning. Their interaction is subtly amusing, sometimes moving. The overall tone of “The Amateurs,” for better or for worse, is intellectual, grappling with a myriad of stimulating questions, which can be summed up (and in the play IS summed up):

“Confronted with a crisis, what is the artistic impulse?
Is it to dive headlong in, and record suffering for future generations?

Or is it to make us forget the crisis? To fill us, either by beauty or laughter, with the will to live.

Or or or, is it a rejection of art entirely, a mere fight for survival? A turning away from the luxury of fiction….”

“The Amateurs” is like a good course. I wish I were a better student.


Click on any photograph by Carol Rosegg to see it enlarged

The Amateurs
Vineyard Theater
Written by Jordan Harrison
Directed by Olive Butler
Set design by David Zinn, costume design by Jessica Pabst, lighting design by Jen Schirever, music and sound design by Bray Poor.
Cast: Kyle Beltran, Quincy Tyler Bernstine, Michael Cyril Creighton, Greg Keller, Jennifer Kim, Thomas Jay Ryan
The Amateurs is set to run through March 29, 2018

Author: New York Theater

Jonathan Mandell is a 3rd generation NYC journalist, who sees shows, reads plays, writes reviews and sometimes talks with people.

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