The Amateurs: a theatre review by Alex First

July 4, 2022 by Alex First
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One of the most bizarre plays I have seen, The Amateurs at Melbourne’s Red Stitch Theatre is a tragicomedy from 2015 American Pulitzer Prize finalist Jordan Harrison. This is its Australian premiere.

Photo: Jodie Hutchinson

While I can’t claim to have liked it, to say it is unusual is an understatement.

A troupe of mismatched mediaeval players make their way across Europe in a cart, desperate to outrun the Black Death, a plague, which has already claimed one of their number.

Arguably their finest member, “Henry’s” passing leaves a gap to fill.

The company is hoping to impress His Highness, the Duke, and thereby gain salvation within the walls of his city.

The play they are staging is a biblical representation of Noah’s Ark, the props for which are being prepared by set designer Gregory, labelled an “idiot”.

Directed by Susie Dee, Red Stitch’s production of The Amateurs begins outside the theatre, as the players – all masked up – represent the seven deadly sins.

After about five minutes, we file into the theatre and take our seats. The play continues with a colourful “rant” from the idiot.

Once a rhythm of sorts is established, the piece is upended when Gregory breaches the fourth wall in a different guise.

As a gay playwright, he addresses the HIV/AIDS crisis of the 1980s and ‘90s.

The parallel between the two humanitarian crises – the Black Death and HIV – is not lost.

And then we return to preparations for the play before the Duke. But he (who we never meet) is too scared of catching the bubonic plague to witness it in person.

Instead, he intends to peer through a crack in the wall.

The cast – Brian Lipson, Dion Mills, Olga Makeeva, Emily Goddard, Khisraw Jones-Shukoor and Darcy Kent – has a whale of a time.

Individually and collectively, they act up, skylark and argue. It is clear the company is a screw-up, despite not wanting to be and they play into that.

Lipson is the clear standout. His naturalistic and enthusiastic showing goes from rib-tickling to moving as he transitions from one character to another and back again.

The narrative is hardly straight forward and you need to concentrate to follow all that is going down.

I found the 110 minutes without interval a stretch. The narrative could readily have been trimmed without losing meaning.

The austere set design by Dann Barber, who is also responsible for costumes, suits the timeframe. The mediaeval props undoubtedly elevate the spectacle and tickle the funny bone.

Still, The Amateurs is a head-scratcher, which is at times laboured and sophomoric.

The Amateurs: Red Stitch Theatre in St Kilda until 24th July, 2022.

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