(l to r) Quincy Tyler Bernstine, Jennifer Kim, Thomas Jay Ryan, and Kyle Beltran in ‘The Amateurs.’ (Photo: Carol Rosegg)
By Michelle Ramoni
In Jordan Harrison’s extraordinary new play, The Amateurs, now being presented at Vineyard Theatre as part of its 35th anniversary season, the audience is transported back in time during the Black Death of the 14th century to illustrate its connection with our present-day imperilment. We follow a troupe of medieval pageant players trying to seek salvation from the plague’s course by bringing biblical stories to life from village to village.
As the audience awaits entry to the theatre, one can read from a series of educational plaques on the Black Death’s history, as well as pontificate over the role of art and theater during times of social and political upheaval.
I was immediately enveloped by liturgical music upon entering while my eyes were met with the vibrant yet cool tones onstage. These two elements were woven together beautifully creating a feeling of desolation and impending doom. A pageant wagon rests slightly upstage right atop a grassy field adding a layer of texture while reinforcing the forlorn world of the play.
Led by the astute direction of Oliver Butler, The Amateurs is visually stunning. Enter the pageant players dressed in farcical and expertly crafted masks and 14th-century garb, heightening the players’ humorous roles as “bad actors” retelling Biblical stories. The cast is a tight ensemble of skillful actors that expertly vacillate between player to “real” character in flawless transition, and the weaving of the two worlds is delightfully satisfying to watch. As the story unfolds, the audience begins to realize the high stakes of each of these refugees who come together seeking salvation.
In Act II, Harrison breaks theatrical convention as two players come out in the present day as themselves to talk directly to the audience. These two standouts, Michael Cyril Creighton and Quincy Tyler Bernstein, begin to draw a connection for us between the 14th-century crisis and our own present-day jeopardy. We are asked to consider the role of art, as well as our personal existential crises. This unconventional style is brilliantly nuanced and works well in the hands of this very capable playwright.
As we travel back to 14th century in the third act, the play carries a forward momentum allowing the audience to have its own catharsis right along with the players.There are many profound moments during the play that land deeply, yet never feel contrived or indulgent. The humor juxtaposed with the traumatic plight of the characters, allows us to be swept up into this crisis just long enough for us to connect our own societal maladies and the play’s own journey. While guiding us to the light, The Amateurs never stays in the metaphorical dark for very long.
108 E. 15th Street, New York City
Through March 18
Michelle Ramoni hails from San Francisco and has been living in New York City for 18 years as a writer, actress, and producer. She is also a voiceover run coach for audio treadmill classes.