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The Amateurs

Theatre Review by David Hurst - February 27, 2018

Michael Cyril Creighton, Greg Keller, and Kyle Beltran
Photo by Carol Rosegg

Jordan Harrison has written some wacky plays over the last few years, including his 2015 Pulitzer finalist Marjorie Prime, Doris to Darlene, Amazons and Their Men, Act a Lady, as well as the musicals Suprema and The Flea and the Professor (Barrymore Award). But nothing in his oeuvre can prepare you for the wonderful strangeness of his new black comedy, The Amateurs, which just opened at The Vineyard. Set in 14th century Europe as the bubonic plague sweeps across the land, The Amateurs tells the story of a small band of pageant players as they desperately attempt to outrun the black death and make it to the safety of their patron and his walled castle where they think they'll be safe from the grim reaper. But, as with all trips, it's the getting there that proves as elusive as it does problematic.

Directed with brazen audacity by Oliver Butler, The Amateurs boasts a top-notch design team including David Zinn (Scenic), Jessica Pabst (Costume), Jen Schriever (Lighting), Bray Poor (Original Music & Sound), Dave Bova & J. Jared Janas (Wig, Hair & Make-Up) and Raphael Mishler (Mask & Puppet). The play opens on a dimly lit stage-scape with a large rolling wagon containing all the players worldly possessions. Covering the stage is some kind of blackness (echoes of the black death which surrounds them?) with a large mound in the center which gives when the actors walk on it. The intrepid troubadours are rehearsing a Medieval version of The Seven Deadly Sins complete with Greco-Roman masks that obscure their faces and voices. It's grim. A bit like listening to Gregorian chant without the snappy tunes. Soon one of their number falls to the ground and dies in his sister's arms, foaming at the mouth and expiring hideously.

This is followed by several scenes which introduces us to the player, all of whom are superb: Gregory (a delicious Michael Cyril Creighton), a jack-of-all-trades who functions as the group's stage manager and road techie; Larking (the suitably pompous Thomas Jay Ryan), the leader of their merry band who often plays God in their productions; Rona (a fiery Jennifer Kim), the leading lady of the group and currently involved with Larking and, perhaps, Gregory; Hollis (the tart-tongues and no-nonsense Quincy Tyler Bernstine), the matriarch of the players and the woman who just watched her brother, Henry, die; and Brom (a sweet Kyle Beltran), the handsome, good-hearted ingénue who's harboring a secret of his own. A Physic (the terrific Greg Keller) arrives on the scene, who looks a lot like the late Henry. He's got a mysterious past and might be a physician, but the group take him on as a new player out of desperation and curiosity. The first act ends with the visage of death appearing to the band of players like something out of Ingmar Bergman's The Seventh Seal. Young Brom offers himself up as a sacrifice to save the others in a gasp-inducing blackout.

At this point, we're about 30 minutes into the 90-minute, intermission-less The Amateurs and I'm looking at my watch wondering whether Harrison's sojourn into Medieval sadness is as bad as I think it is. But then, like manna from the heavens, act two begins and Harrison takes a leap of faith off a theatrical precipice. SPOILER ALERT! The hilarious Michael Cyril Creighton appears onstage in street clothes and informs us he's Jordan Harrison and explains that The Vineyard thinks it's time for him to explain to the audience what's going on and what his play is all about. He proceeds to do just that and, for the next 30-40 minutes in a comedic monologue of epic proportions, we're entranced by Creighton's magical power to entertain us with stories of Harrison's youth, his coming of age, his coming out and why the bubonic plague in The Amateurs is a metaphor for the AIDS epidemic in our lifetime. He's got a point. A persuasive one, especially, for those of us who lived thru the 1980's and 1990's in New York watching hundreds of friends die horrible deaths. Sprinkled throughout Creighton's monologue as Harrison other players pop in and out to provide comment, context and humor, particularly Quincy Tyler Bernstein as Hollis who delivers a monologue about playing Mrs. Cratchit in a production of A Christmas Carol that's truly hilarious.

Eventually we return to the traveling players in act three where revelations occur, childbirth ensues, lessons are learned, and Gregory finds his place in the troupe out of necessity. The possibility of a happy ending is floated but the players realize they don't deserve it because their crisis isn't over. Kind of like that little crisis we lived through recently. No happy ending there either. I ended up leaving The Amateurs loving my life and loving the theatre so I guess Harrison is on the right track. We should all have such self-awareness of who we are and our place in the world.

The Amateurs
Through March 18
Vineyard Theatre, 108 East 15th Street between Union Square East and Irving Place
Tickets online and current Performance Schedule: OvationTix

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