Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: Washington, D.C.

The Amateurs
Olney Theatre Center
Review by Susan Berlin | Season Schedule

Emily Townley and Rachel Zampelli
Photo by Teresa Castracane Photography
Playwright Jordan Harrison is trying to tell several overlapping stories with a small cast in The Amateurs, the current production in the Mulitz-Gudelsky Theatre Lab at Maryland's Olney Theatre Center. While his insights into the development of art in a time of crisis are often interesting, the work as a whole doesn't fit together, remaining as parts rather than forming a whole.

Harrison's jumping-off place is with a company of traveling actors in 14th-century Europe, performing mystery plays based on Bible stories as they try to outrun the Black Death. The playwright makes explicit the parallel he sees between the relentless nature of the bubonic plague, and how people dealt with that threat, and the impact of AIDS on gay men of his generation; the fact that viral illness is currently breaking out around the globe is a topical coincidence.

The members of the troupe are Larking (Michael Russotto), the leader, who plays God onstage when he isn't trying to run the other actors' lives; Hollis (Emily Townley), grieving the loss of her brother to the plague and trying to find meaning in her role as Noah's Wife; Rona (Rachel Zampelli), forced to play two roles simultaneously because of a shortage of company members; Brom (John Keabler), who brings his anguish into the role of Noah; and Gregory (Evan Casey), their genius designer of scenery, costumes and props. A Physic, or doctor (James Konicek), joins them during their travels.

The key to the author's vision is a moment as the company rehearses Noah's Flood, an actual mystery play of the period, when Noah's unnamed wife refuses her husband's order to board the ark. Hollis doesn't understand where this came from, since it isn't in the biblical account, and if a playwright can add this, why can't her character have a name? In that moment, Harrison suggests, art begins moving from representations of religious ideals to observations of human behavior.

All six actors have their chances to shine, whether bombastic or quiet (several characters have secrets they can't share directly), although Casey and Townley get to break the fourth wall with virtuoso monologues.

Director Jason King Jones has staged the 100-minute work in the center of the black box theater, with a shallow proscenium at one end and the audience seated along the two long sides. The design team has worked to create something Gregory might have thrown together in the back of the company's wagon: Pei Lee's costumes are suitably grungy and evocative of the period, paired with enormous masks representing the Seven Deadly Sins and, for God, a wooden halo and a beard made from pieces of white rope; scenic designer Misha Kachman's open, flexible playing area; and Colin K. Bills' lighting, which helps set the shifting moods of the piece.

The Amateurs runs through April 5, 2020, at Olney Theatre Center, Mulitz-Gudelsky Theatre Lab, 2001 Olney-Sandy Spring Road, Olney MD. For tickets and information, please call 301-924-3400 or visit

By Jordan Harrison
Directed by Jason King Jones

Larking (he plays God): Michael Russotto
Brom (he plays Noah): John Keabler
Hollis (she plays Noah's Wife): Emily Townley
Rona (she plays Shem and Shem's Wife): Rachel Zampelli
Gregory (a set designer): Evan Casey
The Physic (also plays Henry's Apparition): James Konicek