Review: At times sophomoric, “The Amateurs” certainly isn’t amateur
3.5/5 Leeches: Well worth watching.
Live theater has returned to Willamette, and kicking off the socially distanced season is a play set in another plague, or rather two plagues: the Black Death and the AIDS crisis. Jordan Harrison’s “The Amateurs” follows a rag-tag team of pre-Renaissance actors as they struggle to perform and gain the attention of a distant duke while the Black Death looms over them. Replete with commentary on the power of drama and the minutiae of practicing for performances, the play fancies itself a profound look into artistic response to tragedy. “The Amateurs” is well worth seeing for its commendable performances and stellar set design, even if its timely message is hindered by its uneven tone and poorly realized characters.
Harrison is at his strongest when he writes about tiny, fleeting moments, and is adept at getting the audience to root for his troubled and sometimes frighteningly authentic characters. In a slick trick that really works best on stage, the economy casting allows the same real-world actors to play different roles, both mirroring the fictional actors and saying something of substance about the ephemerality of the stage medium. The powerful Larking plays something of a director when he steps into the role of God and the actor playing Him, a clever but cloying nod to the political power intrinsic in any theater production. Much of the drama between actors complicates the Biblical dichotomies they perform: birth and death, sin and forgiveness, health and sickness. The director, after all, is allowed to put words in God’s mouth.
Unfortunately, our esteemed playwright can’t help but smack the audience in the face with the moral of his morality play in a move that feels straight out of a 300 level screenwriting exercise. A haphazard approach to dealing with social oppression leaves minoritized identities mentioned but never fully explored, and the show has nothing of substance to say about the suffering inflicted on its characters; they simply announce their tragic backstories and move on. For all the time on stage given to exploring homosexual repression, the play hamfistedly provides a traumatized queer character who gets no character development, and seems suprisingly comfortable burying its gays. Finally, comic relief often comes too quickly after tragedy to let the seriousness sink in. This move might be meant to mimic the mix of drama and tragedy one finds in the rhythms of real life, but comes across as indecisive tonal whiplash. None of these flaws are fatal in their own right, but combined demonstrate a lack of rigorous vision for a play that fancies itself as having something important to say.
None of these gripes, however, are with the staging or performance of the work here at Willamette. Danny Davis (‘23) steals the show as the endearing and honest Gregory while Emily Embleton (‘23) breathes life into an inquisitive yet sullen Hollis; they both tag team for an immersively acted post-intermission interlude. Anya Jones (‘24) pulls off the most human portrayal of the play with red-blooded yet confoundingly repentant Rona.
What’s more, the acting is well supported with sparing use of stagecraft and effects. The charmingly quaint props of the fictional troupe serve as both a nod to the history of stage performance and a reminder that one doesn’t need fancy instruments to make a good play work well. Limited lighting and music are skillfully deployed to cut cleanly between the short scenes, contributing to the show’s stripped-down image without sacrificing clarity of presentation. In short, the Theatre department continues to dazzle with their production values, which should come as a surprise to no one who’s seen a Willamette production before.
Sometimes “The Amateurs” is as clever as it thinks it is, and at least for those moments it’s worth watching. It might be for the best that the theater department has selected such an experimental piece to kick off a season with a plague of our very own. The play engages with the medium of the stage in a way few have before it, and despite a tonally odd ending, the audience is left with a good deal to think about at the end of the day. “The Amateurs” has something important to say, even if it isn’t quite sure how to say it.