The latest work by Pulitzer Prize-finalist Jordan Harrison, The Amateurs, now making its world premiere at Vineyard Theatre, is a profound and witty meta-theatrical meditation on the purpose of art and the role of the artist in times of disaster. Devised in the format of a multi-layered play-within-a-play-within-a-play, the momentous self-referencing theme is seen through the eyes of the current playwright, an itinerant troupe of medieval players whose story he created, and the Biblical characters and religious concepts they portray, while trying to escape three of the most epic catastrophes in the course of human history: the Great Flood recounted in the Book of Genesis; the Black Death of the 14th century; and the AIDS pandemic of our own post-modern era.
Directed with keen humor and intellectual acuity by Obie Award-winner Oliver Butler, a stellar ensemble of six fluidly shifts back and forth from one character to another, from one epoch to the next, in performances that capture both the personal and the universal issues inherent in Harrison’s richly-developed three-act script. Each actor is cleverly cast to embody a familiar personality type that remains recognizable across the roles and centuries, and each brings a contemporary relatability to the recurrent archetypes, in their surprisingly present-day language and attitudes, and in the life-and-death challenges they (and we) all face.
Thomas Jay Ryan oversees the proceedings in his parallel roles as Larking, the director of the traveling players, and as the figure of God in their play; he is fittingly powerful, commanding, and pompous – often, and intentionally, risibly so. Quincy Tyler Bernstine sympathetically conveys the nagging existentialist angst of the troupe’s lead actress Hollis, whose brother quickly succumbs to the widespread outbreak of the bubonic plague, whose female characters are largely nameless and powerless minions to their husbands, who defiantly goes off-script to explore their backstories, and enthusiastically steps out of character to examine her own purpose and impulses as an artist. Greg Keller is the sibling whose death Hollis grieves, and The Physic, who is unable to control the hand of fate, but can only offer support and solace while standing by and watching the suffering and loss he can’t heal or prevent. Kyle Beltran appears as Brom, the most talented actor in the troupe, who is also expert at disguising his own true self, much to his internalized torment and debilitating guilt. Jennifer Kim is a powerhouse as the angry and hard-hearted cynic Rona, decried as a tramp but in need of real tenderness and love. And Michael Cyril Creighton doubles as the irresistible idiot/artist Gregory – an underestimated wise fool who speaks the truth, paints the set for the show, and unexpectedly fills in when needed as an actor – and as the playwright Harrison, who, like Bernstine, breaks the fourth wall to address the audience directly, candidly discussing his inspiration and intent in creating the play. They are all distinctive in their well-defined characterizations, effective in their comic turns, and resonant in the very human emotions that span the ages and connect the past with the present.
Supporting the terrific cast is a captivating artistic design that is in full tune with the eras, with historicizing costumes by Jessica Pabst, masks by Raphael Mishler, and wigs, hair, and make-up by Dave Bova and J. Jared Janas (a deliberately ratty beard for Larking’s imperious portrayal of God provides laughs). David Zinn’s set, with a carnival wagon that opens to reveal the acting troupe’s portable stage and a rolling diorama of animals boarding Noah’s Ark two by two, recalls the early 14th-century frescoes of Giotto and manuscript illuminations of the Middle Ages, and a central mound of black dirt, placed before the backdrop of a dark and ominous grey sky, evokes the omnipresent threat of the plague and the mounting heaps of its victims’ bodies. Original music and sound by Bray Poor augment the moods with circus instruments and medieval chants, and lighting by Jen Schriever is appropriately dramatic.
The show’s razor-sharp writing and imaginative staging include astute references to the evolution of art history (from the static icons of Byzantine artists, to Giotto’s incipient humanization of figures in the proto-Renaissance, to the full-blown Humanism of Leonardo and the High Renaissance) and the theater (from the recitation of simple rhyming couplets to convey the basic narrative, to the beginnings of understanding and empathizing with the figures and the story being told, to fully inhabiting the emotions and psyches of the characters and their situations through method acting and improvisation). There are allusions to the morality plays of the Middle Ages, in spot-on hilarious personifications of the Seven Deadly Sins by the masked actors (the words and demeanor of Sloth are particularly amusing), to Shakespeare’s famed theatrical metaphor from As You Like It that “All the world’s a stage,” and to the structural framing device of the musical Pippin, each of which serves to reinforce the central question posed by Harrison: What’s an artist to do in response to a world in crisis, humanity on the brink of extermination, and the perennial cycle of destruction and renewal?
The Amateurs does it all; it observes, contemplates, and comments; escapes and addresses; entertains and enlightens. Kudos to Jordan Harrison and the entire team of the Vineyard Theatre’s inventive production for brilliantly highlighting the significance of the Arts as Humanities, and the value of artists in desperate times, throughout time, and for all time. Be sure that you make the time to see this extremely intelligent, funny, and relevant work.
Running Time: Approximately 85 minutes, without intermission.