A portable wagon stage is the centerpiece of “The Amateurs,” Jordan Harrison’s bold new play at the Vineyard Theatre.
By accident or design — or a little of both — this prop stage functions as far more than a venue for a band of struggling players in the 14th century.
In David Zinn’s ingenious set design, the wagon is burden and escape, work and home, a place for storytelling in the time of the Black Death, and as a kind of magic telescope to our own day.
Under the hand of director Oliver Butler, “The Amateurs” manages a rare hat trick. Yes, we get to know the daily grind of this impoverished troupe, with their rocky and divergent views on faith, and their repertoire of masked allegorical and religious plays.
We also gain the vantage of art history, zooming through the centuries, to focus on the rise of a revolutionary concept: The individual artist’s consciousness.
We then have the pleasure of seeing a 2018 version of such a dynamic artistic choice, delivered with gusto by actress Quincy Tyler Bernstine.
Her response to the challenge interpreting a time-worn standard of stage, screen and literature is a hilarious ramble into an actor’s quest to find meaning. You’ll be amazed at the ocean seething within a familiar holiday chestnut.
And then, as a bonus for nailing this triad, the playwright weaves them all together in a beautifully crafted moment where the constraints of form fail to contain the rise of intellect. And, like a rocket to the moon, or the first glimpse from the Hubble, we witness a turning point. Time changes.
We see the old fall away from the rise of the new.
There’s no skimping on impact here. In a risky bit of admitted indulgence, the author connects the early ravages of AIDS to the realities of his own generation, one maturing in a different world — but one still challenged to understand the recent past, as well as the distant past.
It may sound like a stretch — and indeed it is — but the leap is honest, straightforward and authentic. And it fits. We confront the essential dynamics of individuality and art itself. The author’s reach dovetails with a vengeance to the severe realities of the Dark Ages.
Much of the ancient action swirls around an even older event — Noah and the ark. The troupe struggles with an interpretation, just as their own set builder (played with sly understatement by Michael Cyril Creighton) engages in some god-like actions of his own. The cast of six transports this frail outpost of civilization through the moment, and through the ages.
We never leave the tale of the strolling players, although the play takes a daring veer away. “The Amateurs” straddles the art of then and of now, and leaves you with a lot to savor. So much that you just might want to return to the Vineyard Theatre again, for that look back to see when art began.
There is a literal show-stopper to help you get there.