By Mary Boyle
In their 2019-2020 season, Forward Theater Company of Madison was just one week away from the opening night of their final production of the year when Jen Uphoff Gray, Forward's Artistic Director, led the Company through not only the difficult decision to cancel all of the performances for the run of the last show, but also the brave decision to have faith in their theatre community and support the professional theatre artists who had committed to the show by fully honoring their contracts, as well as keeping their staff at full employment and benefits throughout the shut down. Her faith and determination payed off. After a successful virtual 2020-2021 run, Forward has made the return to live, in-person theatre for their lucky 13th season, while continuing to offer a virtual option in order to include everyone. Not only that, for their second production, they have brought back the play the pandemic took away: THE AMATEURS.
The universe has a peculiar way of trashing our best laid plans, only to prove that it is, in fact, the true master of good timing; such is the case with this play. Written by Jordan Harrison and directed by Jen Uphoff Gray, The Amateurs follows a troop of rag tag players in 14th Century Europe, during the time of the black death, who "bring stories of the scripture to the people." In the hope of impressing their patron, the Duke, the players are developing a new play about Noah's Ark, but they are hit with misfortune after misfortune as they journey to Court while trying to outrun the plague and their own secrets. Along the way, the players contemplate and reckon with individuality, their value as actors, sin, God, love, fear and death, and though that may not sound like the basis of a good comedy, the play is laugh-out-loud funny, as well as being remarkably relatable, thought-provoking, poignant and timely.
Four of the cast members returned from the original production: Matt Daniels is Larking, the pompous and overbearing director; Josh Krause plays Gregory, a simple man who makes props and scenery, but is rarely given lines; Emily Glick plays Rona, Larking's love interest and a player with a secret she soon won't be able to hide; and Kat Wodtke is Hollis, who loses her older brother and fellow player to the plague in the opening scene. New to this version of the production are James Carrington as Bromo, who secretly misses Henry as much as Hollis, and Ty Fanning as the Physic, who joins the players to replace Henry, but also to escape secrets of his own.
Forward Theater has demonstrated a knack for choosing bold new and culturally relevant productions, and The Amateurs is just that. The set design, props and costumes are simple yet incredibly well-designed, and are just enough to take you into the medieval world without being overdone (Scenic Design by Nathan Stuber, Props by Pam Miles and Costume design by Monica Kilkus). The entire cast is incredibly strong and talented, featuring several of Milwaukee's finest. Matt Daniels and Kat Wodtke have long been two of my favorite Wisconsin-based actors, but Josh Krause, who is relatively new to the scene, has continually blown me away with every performance I see him in, and this one is no exception (both Daniels and Krause were brilliant together in Jeeves at Sea at MCT). James Carrington is always fun to watch, and though it's been a bit since I've seen Ty Fanning on the stage, since I don't get to APT as much as I'd like to, I was truly impressed by both his Emily Glick's performance.
One of the very interesting aspects of the play is that the playwright, Harrison, wrote himself into the story. Played by Josh Krause (who also plays Gregory in the players), the main story takes a pause and jumps into the present as the playwright comes on stage and removes the fourth wall, addressing the audience directly. He proceeds to tell a series of stories about growing up during the AIDS epidemic of the 80's and early 90's, already aware that he, himself, was gay. Those experiences clearly inform the play, though he admits they weren't the main inspiration for the story, at all; it was coming across an actual medieval play of Noah's Ark in which the wife of Noah, who does not have a name, does not obediently get on the boat, as she does in the bible. The deviation from the story prompted the playwright to wonder at the cause, and that wonder brought forth a play.
The parallels between the Black Death, the AIDS epidemic and our current pandemic are unmistakable and fascinating, and yet the play was written before the current pandemic, which makes it even more remarkable. Our human collective is suffering, but we are awakening to the idea that the collective is only as strong and healthy as the individual and that, as individuals, we are not simply actors on the stage condemned to our lines; we can improvise. We have agency. The plague, the AIDS epidemic, our pandemic: they have all taken people away, but we who are left behind are charged with "naming the nameless" and to "remember...the things it extinguished and the things it inspired." Yet, as Hollis notes, people have always thought the world is going to end, but "the persistence of the normal is strong. Confronted with a crisis, I guess it's sad, we forget easily."
"But maybe that's how we're able to move forward," the playwright suggests.
The Amateurs may be the most important production of the season, and I am thrilled that Forward has made it so accessible to everyone. Although I love and miss the experience of live theatre and the connection that takes place between the audience and the actors, the virtual experience of The Amateurs was nearly as good as the real thing (when you factor in that I watched it on my laptop while I was warm and comfortable in my own bed, I think it actually evens out). The purchase of a ticket gets you a link to the performance that can be viewed online any time through the run of the show, without the need to make the trip to Madison (though I certainly believe it is worth the trip, should you choose to make it).
THE AMATEURS runs through November 21st at The Playhouse at Overture Center, located at 201 State Street in Madison. Tickets for both in-person and virtual performances may be purchased online at https://forwardtheater.com/show/the-amateurs.
There are two Live Lectures happening at the Overture Center which are free to the public and proceed a performance:
Traditions of Medieval TheaterSaturday, 11/13 at 6:30pm
Presented by Martin Foys
- Martin Foys is a professor in Medieval Studies at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.
The Macabre and the Performance of DeathSaturday, 11/20 at 6:30pm
Presented by Thomas Dale
- Thomas Dale is the UW Director of Medieval Studies and Professor of Art History, and will give a lecture on the macabre and the performance of death in late medieval art and visual culture.