James Konicek and Emily Townley welcome animals onto Noah’s Ark in “The Amateurs” at Olney Theatre Center (Photo Credit: Teresa Castracane Photography)
It has well been said that the most important thing about comedy is – timing. So how timely would a dark comedy – set in plague-ravaged Medieval Europe – be, considering the present world-wide Coronavirus outbreak? Very timely, one would think – unless you’ve been quarantined in a darkened theatre for two-plus hours, waiting to see if your bladder could survive the sanctimonious blather onstage. Such is the malady which taints The Amateurs – the current production at Olney Theatre.
Directed by Jason King Jones, The Amateurs offers an interesting concept. Place a group of 14th-century actors – whose specialty is performing Bible-based plays – in a situation where they are grappling with age-old personal and professional issues, while simultaneously trying to outrun the Black Death. Flavor this mix by adding the one tale which eclipses all other trials known to man – the story of the Great Flood of Noah – and the stage should be awash with possibilities.
The question which naturally arises here is, which is more dangerous – a disease which envelops a man’s body or one which consumes his soul? Unfortunately, the playwright seems to be consumed with neither body nor soul but rather with his nebulous sexuality and survivor’s guilt.
Any jokes in such a set-up would necessarily be dark in nature. And using thespians as the foils is genius – what other group so richly abounds in the seven deadly sins? Where the concept plunges head-first off the wobbly oxen cart is in the belabored second act, which isn’t an act at all but rather a stump for the playwright to explain the motivation behind his play. Add to that, Noah’s wife stepping into the middle of the playwright’s musings to interject her own insufferable monologue, and one wonders why Jehovah didn’t drown us all when he had the chance.
At this point, let me allow that I can’t entirely fault the director, Jason King Jones. When a play hits a wall this hard, it’s usually the writer (in this case, Jordan Harrison) who is to blame. Nor do I want to lambast the cast. True, there are a couple of affected performances, but others do an admirable job with the paper-thin tripe they’ve been asked to execute.
James Konicek, as the mysterious Physic, brings a real sense of gravitas to the stage. It might have been nice to see what he did with his character in Act III (more on that in a moment.) Michael Russotto, as the smarmy company front man Larking, is also quite enjoyable – even if some of his dialogue disappears into the depths of his tightly braided beard.
Rachel Zampelli had some of the funnier moments, as the company tart Rona. Not sure what she was doing with her acrid sounding voice, but that was the least of the problems with this production. John Keabler also proffers a professional presence, as the deeply conflicted Brom, before being disco-danced through the meandering muck of Act II.
Frankly, the less said about the taxing treatise that is Act II, the better. But I will say that any playwright who has to insert an interminable digression, in order to delineate his play, doesn’t really have a play at all. He has – at best – a work in progress, which he can show to his writing class. Or something to show his therapist.
In this case, it’s a real flip of the coin.
(One question: Who thought it would be a good idea to break down Bob Cratchet’s wife on the very same stage, which for more than a decade has hosted a stellar production of A Christmas Carol? Talk about cracking the flaky crust on top of a tasty plum pudding!)
Aside from the heavy-handed second act, the show had a sprinkling of comical moments. But not as many as a handful of howlers in the audience would have you believe. For every mouth I saw broadly laughing at the occasional silly joke, there were easily a dozen other bewildered spectators — sitting with their mouths agape. And there is nothing more unsettling, as an unmoved audience member, than being surrounded by forced laughter.
I would be remiss if I didn’t give a shout out to the creative team. Costuming, MUAH, lighting, sound and the set were all fine. I especially enjoyed how the team addressed the centuries-old problem of getting the animals onto the ark.
As I intimated before, we fled at the start of Act III. This was no easy feat, since The Amateurs (as presented here at least) is a three-act play with no intermission. No running time is listed in the program (quite unusual), nor is the audience warned that they are about to be held captive for two hours or more, while the playwright pitches his threadbare timeshare.
Look, I’m not saying that speaking openly about love and loss isn’t an important thing, regardless of whether we’re talking about Covid-19, the Bubonic Plague, drowning in the Flood or finding your motivation. But there is a way to tie these themes together without making your personal guilt trip society’s problem. Granted, you may not win a Pulitzer Prize for telling your story that way. But you’ll win something better – the respect and admiration of a grateful audience.
You might also get a positive review, as this one is certainly not.
The Amateurs runs now – April 5 in the Mulitz-Gudelsky Lab Theatre at Olney Theatre. Running time is anyone’s guess with no intermission. Olney Theatre Center is located at 2001 Olney-Sandy Spring Road in Olney, Maryland. Tickets and other information may be found by visiting Olney Theatre Center.
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Prior to the start of last Saturday night’s show, Artistic Director Jason Loewith shared the welcome news that the Mulitz-Gudelsky Lab Theatre with be undergoing something of a renovation this spring. Loewith said that the new configuration will include an expanded lobby – glad tidings for patrons who have been sandwiched into the present space during times of inclement weather.
Anthony C. Hayes is an actor, author, raconteur, rapscallion and bon vivant. A one-time newsboy for the Evening Sun and professional presence at the Washington Herald, Tony’s poetry, photography, humor, and prose have also been featured in Smile, Hon, You’re in Baltimore!, Destination Maryland, Magic Octopus Magazine, Los Angeles Post-Examiner, Voice of Baltimore, SmartCEO, Alvarez Fiction, and Tales of Blood and Roses. If you notice that his work has been purloined, please let him know. As the Good Book says, “Thou shalt not steal.”