The Amateurs, opening tonight at the Vineyard Theatre, is a dramatic triptych. Acts 1 and 3, executed in more or less the period style you'd expect from a play set in Europe during the Black Death, frame a postmodern centerpiece. The fourth-wall-demolishing second act features a character playing playwright Jordan Harrison, who shares memories of his sixth-grade health class and muses on art in times of crisis. It's the biggest risk of the production and, if you don't mind having your suspension of belief suspended, the biggest reward.
The story in which this digression is embedded begins with an acting troupe trooping through Europe, performing morality and mystery plays on a pageant wagon — that is, when the locals let them. If you think actors today have it rough, at least they're not getting bedpans dumped on them. The long-suffering company consists of the pompous Larking (who, fittingly enough, plays God in the production of Noah's Flood that the troupe is rehearsing), the promiscuous Rona, the tart Hollis, the dying Henry (soon to be replaced by the Jewish Asher), his guilt-ridden lover Bram, and the idiot savant Gregory, who designs scenery. In a shadowy parallel to the AIDS epidemic of the 1980s, Bram catches bubonic plague from the infected Henry and develops boils resembling Kaposi's sarcoma.
This correlation and others are brought out more clearly in the second act, wherein Harrison (played by Michael Cyril Creighton, who also plays Gregory) asks, "Confronted with a crisis, what is the artistic impulse?" Is it to "record the suffering for future generations?" To offer a temporary escape? Or to reject art entirely as a luxury? Yes, yes, and yes is the answer from a playwright who wants to have his cake, eat it, and save the leftovers.
Somehow, he does. Audiences get both an escape from and a portrait of suffering in this frequently funny play about amateur actors struggling to put on a biblical epic while facing religious persecution and unwanted pregnancy in a diseased world. And Act 2 is, if not a rejection of art, an interruption of it. Harrison's theorizing takes viewers out of the drama to give them a new perspective on it. He makes an academic argument — that the Middle Ages is when "the individual" emerged in art. Specifically, he says, the invention of character in drama occurred during a performance of Noah's Flood, when the actor playing Noah's wife refused to board the ark, defying the "divine script." The Amateurs's third act, when it finally arrives, delivers this watershed performance.
This in-and-out style of storytelling requires a lot of skill to pull off. Under the stewardship of director Oliver Butler, the cast and crew manage it. Creighton deftly differentiates his two roles, and most of his fellow performers show themselves similarly adept, whether also double-cast (Kyle Beltran, for example, as the sympathetic Brom and an imperious majordomo) or not (Thomas Jay Ryan blustering forcefully as Larking).
Even more dazzling is the design team. Kudos to lighting designer Jen Schriever, scenic designer David Zinn, and sound designer Bray Poor, who has composed music for the show that's reminiscent of "Brave Sir Robin" from Monty Python and the Holy Grail. Schriever can do everything from the red glow of firelight to the bright glare of day. Similarly versatile, Poor glides from the pluck of minstrel music to the harrowing whisper of the grim reaper coming to claim one of the troupe. And Zinn's pageant wagon, which opens to reveal a miniature world of hoistable clouds and landscape cutouts, is a toylike delight.
All this talent crystallizes in the show's funniest bit. Quincy Tyler Bernstine, playing Noah's recalcitrant wife, is at last forced aboard the ark by her sons. "Now have thou that for thy note!" she bellows indignantly, backhanding one of the wooden cutouts Gregory made to represent her children. Its head flies off, and her hand flies to her mouth in shock. The moment is one anybody who's ever performed in a show or even made a home movie should relish: a blooper.
In The Amateurs, Harrison has captured amateurishness expertly. He has also dared to go deeper, digging into the cultural emergence of individuality. Some might fault him for taking on so much, but that's just what he should be applauded for. Confronted with a crisis, what is the artistic impulse? Harrison's is to craft something prodigious.
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