By Zach Terrillion
At the start of the second act of The Amateurs, the recent student-directed effort from the Oberlin Theatre department, the audience seemed prepared for the worst. One of the cast members came out in street clothes, calling for the lights to be turned back on. They wanted to provide some context for the show we had seen so far, supposedly responding to audience members dipping out during the intermission. I felt terrible that the cast member had to make such a bizarre announcement; any exit from the space would more likely be attributed to how freaking hot it was in Kander during the show.
Still, the audience became more comfortable as we realized we were in the middle of one hell of a 4th wall break. The 20-minute-or-so tangent from the main story became a rumination on art and representation itself. How does one express agency in their own stories? That the show pulled off this interlude was a telling sign of the production as a whole, as one that asserts its agency the way our faux-playwright talked about.
Ultimately, The Amateurs could not be a worse title for this production, as it seemed to get everything right. Jordan Harrison’s 2018 play centers on a group of kooky actors trekking across medieval Europe for safety from the ongoing plague. They perform various “morality plays” adapted from biblical stories, hoping to receive a safe haven in a royal hall. Premiering at the Kander Theater this past weekend, the darkly comedic show was directed by student Maeve Hogan ’23.
Hogan’s direction placed her six actors in some bold positions to terrific effect. I especially loved her motif of having the cast pray several times throughout the show, with some strong parallels drawn in their positioning. The staging of the meta-morality plays was fun to watch, with chaotic spectacle leading the charge and tons of fun details to notice wherever you looked. The same applied to the more intimate scenes, where background actions revealed significant plot developments. The direction demanded your attention throughout.
The sets and costumes were also excellent. They were shabby in a way that charmingly reflected the show’s DIY peasant setting. The wooden visual effects were quaint and gave some great backstory about our scrappy troupe. A central wooden structure with a forested background reflects the isolated, potentially cruel, yet homely world that the characters must live in. The costumes were styled to the period and had the proper dose of theatricality. I especially loved the fake beards worn in the production of “Noah’s Ark.” The lighting was also compelling, with single beams capturing characters in their darkest moments and making sure confrontations were as dynamic as possible. The sound design was precise and chilling, setting up a genuinely terrifying and demonic Act One finale.
The actors were all fantastic. Their characters run the gamut from a humble dreamer of a production designer to a domineering director to an elusive psychic. The whole cast understood the assignment, both theirs and each other’s, which led to a strong group chemistry. No matter the show’s direction, you could be invested because you felt an actual connection to these people. True life was injected into them, also helped by occasionally gnarly make-up jobs.
Still, this production’s sheer ambition stood out to me the most. It didn’t just break the 4th wall; it demolished it. During the 2nd act interlude, the dark comedy we had been viewing evolved into a queer-tinged art history lesson with references to closeted tennis teachers and A Christmas Carol. It would then move back to the plague-era setting in the very next scene. It was a play within a play within a play. In the wrong hands, it probably wouldn’t make a lick of sense. Thankfully, the hands here are graceful. The transitions between tones are distinct and allow the audience time to catch their breath. They were clearly explained thanks to costume changes and chameleonic work from the cast.
From my experience of Oberlin productions, the more content warnings a show has, the more it will likely hit the spot. The house manager at The Amateurs announced a whopping 11 — the perfect show for kids to watch with their parents (which I did). The sweltering heat in the Kander Black Box was not so much due to the insulation, but more so the raw energy this production exhibited. While the show has unfortunately closed, it exemplified Oberlin’s natural talent on deck. Ultimately, The Amateurs asserted its own agency as a play to remember, refusing to get on the Noah’s Ark of a by-the-numbers work.