Olney Theatre Center’s ‘The Amateurs’ is a comedy of ‘epidemic’ proportions

Playwright Jordan Harrison's thoughtful comedy draws parallels between the medieval plague and the AIDS crisis.

Emily Townley (Hollis) and Rachel Zampelli (Rona) in “The Amateurs” at Olney Theatre Center
Photo by Teresa Castracane Photography.

There is nothing like a good old-fashioned plague to get you pondering life’s big questions: the Bubonic Plague, the AIDS Crisis, COVID-19, really any epidemic will do.

Of course, Jordan Harrison’s The Amateurs is not about Coronavirus. And Olney Theatre Center couldn’t possibly have known when programming this thoughtful comedy about medieval actors outrunning the black plague that viruses would be very much on audience’s minds this week.

But by staging The Amateurs now, while a new health scare is forcing us all to rethink our routines, Olney Theatre’s production serendipitously underscores the play’s main point that while calamitous and tragic, health crises have often been catalysts for survivors – and specifically artists – to question the status quo and demand more out of life.

The motley crew at the heart of Harrison’s comedy comprises six actors rehearsing a new production of Noah’s Flood in 14th-century Europe. They travel from town to town, hoping to outrun the plague and secure the favor of a duke whose protection could mean the difference between life and death. Larking (played with hilarious pomposity by Michael Russotto) sets the tone as the troupe’s director. He casts himself as God, dressed in a rope wig and halo reminiscent of a church pageant or elementary school play. Theater, we observe, has come a long way since the Middle Ages.

Michael Russotto (Larking) and Evan Casey (Gregory) in “The Amateurs” at Olney Theatre Center
Photo by Teresa Castracane Photography.

But sewn between the jokes in The Amateurs are a host of big ideas. Hollis (a dignified Emily Townley), one of the six actors in the troupe, begins to question the status quo after losing her brother to the plague, determining that her character – Noah’s nameless wife – will not get on the ark. This one act of defiance, the playwright suggests, plants the seeds of humanism, that re-shifting of priorities from celestial to earthly that gave birth to the Renaissance.

The play gets decidedly less funny when a plot twist (it’s clever, disarming, and totally unexpected, but hey, I’m not going to spoil it for you here) connects the Middle Ages to America at the height of the AIDS crisis. And this is where it becomes clear that The Amateurs is a play that demands a lot from audiences. It’s a play that asks you to consider many big ideas simultaneously: the rise of humanism, people’s response to crisis, survivor’s guilt, the concept of free will. Luckily for audiences of this production, Jason King Jones’s direction allows these ideas to unfold organically, the humanity of the characters always at the fore.

Evan Casey plays Gregory, the simple-minded set designer who dispenses accidental wisdom with childlike delivery. He is, quite simply, enchanting, and holds the audience in rapt attention through a string of well-delivered monologues, stealing our hearts and reminding us why the fool, that archetypal character who says what everyone else is afraid to say, came to be a staple character in theater. I have seen Casey in many shows around town, and to my eye, this performance stands out among a string of laudable performances.

Rachel Zampelli provides another star turn as the droll Rona, slinging one-liners and bringing a note of sitcom-like comedy to the play (The actor playing Shem died of the plague a few towns back, so Rona dons half a beard and plays both Shem and Shem’s wife. Cue the laughter!). John Keabler takes on multiple characters ranging from funny to deadly serious, and James Konicek portrays a thoughtful doctor who joins the troupe after fleeing a mysterious past.

The Amateurs is performed on a bare stage, save for the cart used to haul the troupe’s scenery from town to town. Colin K. Bills’s lighting design creates delicious atmosphere on the bare stage: A blue uplit hole becomes a lake for washing clothes, and a red hole, a fire pit. Scenic design by Misha Kachman features a lovely scene of snowfall and Pei Lee’s costumes add to the humor.

Many young playwrights in America right now are asking theatergoers to rethink the boundaries of theater. Add Jordan Harrison to the list of those pushing the artform to ask new questions, seek new answers, and take humanity just a little bit further in the business of being human.

Running Time: 100 minutes, with no intermission.

The Amateurs plays through April 5, 2020, at Olney Theatre Company’s Mulitz-Gudelsky Theatre Lab – 2001 Olney-Sandy Spring Road, in Olney, MD. For tickets, call the box office at (301) 924-3400 or go online.

Additional credits: Karin Graybash (sound design), Ben Walsh (stage manager), Josiane M. Jones (director of production)


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