“I was really starting to feel like someone.” – Amos
An hour before the beat drops we’re invited into his home and cheerfully encouraged to “touch everything;” not by him— by the group of Americans overseeing this latest transgression. We the audience begin to paw our way through the set of rooms, populated by the barest necessities and proof of life: but whose life are we surveying, and why should we be allowed to do this? I rifle, I inspect, and I make assumptions. I find a cramped twin bed too small to share— he must be lonely. A broken smartphone impossible to use sits in a box on the nightstand— he’s cut off from a former life, but still keeps this reminder. I unzip backpacks, handle toiletries, and essentially judge my surroundings in the cold, fascinated way one does in these situations. I hear another patron down the hall giggle as the woman standing behind the bar explains the available selection of vodka in a stiff Russian accent. The patron laughs because the accent is unusual to them, but to the bartender it’s just her voice. At this point it occurs to me that immersive theatre is a lot like tourism.
Amos, the enigmatic titular character and unreliable heart of this eponymous Play with Music, is a tourist as well, and over roughly eighty propulsive minutes whisks the audience away from Los Angeles and into the nihilistic underbelly of the Ukraine. Amos is a twitchy, socially-awkward American far from his home in Akron, Ohio who somehow finds himself spending an oddly belated “gap year” in the grey metropolis of Kiev: a land not half as strange as the stranger in its midst. One fateful night Amos finds himself in a nightclub graced with the sonic presence of The Artist, a mysterious and hard-living DJ who is something of a minor celebrity in the surrounding region’s Techno Punk/EDM scene. The Artist’s natural talent and mastery despite his grit and cynicism stand in stark contrast to the vanilla soullessness weighing down Amos’ own dreams of being recognized and celebrated for artistic expression. When the latter contrives a meeting with the former, their fates become intertwined in a tragicomic morality tale exploring the darker edges identity, art, and cultural appropriation.
Amos: a Play with Music is a pitch-black comedy travelogue-turned-existential thriller throbbing with the electric pain of Eastern European house beats and the insatiable lust that comes from wanting to be seen as more than what you are. Cowriters Eva Anderson (FX’s You’re the Worst) and Michael Cassady (also starring as Amos in this production) have wrought something truly special here. Amos is a story of intense emotional honesty about characters who do nothing but lie. The script is whip smart and caustically funny with a chilling gut punch of an ending that makes your skin want to crawl back to the beginning and listen to Amos’ story all over again. Most importantly, though, the play is well observed. There is something charmingly authentic in the way the characters speak to one another and express themselves, an attitude that flavors every line and gives the proceedings an extra kick. While the story follows an American, the point of view is decidedly European, one that we don’t normally hear expressed.
As the title denotes, Amos is a play with music, not a musical, and it is important to appreciate that distinction going in. There are a few brief times when the original music, also written by the multi-hyphenate Cassady, leans towards a more traditional musical theatre bent with characters actually singing their thoughts, but the majority of it is a beautifully frenetic EDM underscore that feels real and true to the world it’s representing. The presence of music feels particularly earned and appropriate here: these two characters were brought together by music and it is music that binds their destinies over the course of the play. It’s only right that we should hear it.
Director Eric Hoff and his team have done a marvelous job making the venue work for them as they conjure the world of Amos and The Artist. The immersive preshow is an inspired first impression that puts the audience in a playful, inquisitive mood as they unknowingly begin to trace Amos’ path. If you know you’re someone who likes to uncover every hidden detail in situations like this— or you’re just eager to make full use of the bar of imported vodkas before it closes promptly at show time— I recommend arriving at least a half hour beforehand.
For the show itself, the audience is ushered into a just-spacious-enough brick workspace complete with creaking industrial sliding doors that looks every bit the part of a building that might house an impromptu EDM concert under shadier circumstances. Inside the Amos crew is pulling off a modest technical miracle with the level of precision being pulled off over the course of the show. The lushness and complexity of the sound and lighting in such a small space is staggering and gives the evening a real weight and depth that shows of this size aren’t usually as lucky to get.
While the exploratory prelude over drinks is the only overtly immersive element of the evening, the show itself is staged in such a way that the audience remains firmly in the line of fire. Prepare not only to stand for the full runtime of the piece, but also to frequently shift positions and turn around to refocus as the action plays out in something of a reverse theatre in the round configuration with the audience as a large group in the middle as the majority of the action plays all along the outer edges of the room. This keeps the audience literally on their toes, ensuring active, engagement from beginning to end. Close quarters like these leave no room to hide on the performance end, which is no problem at all for the show’s greatest special effect: Mr. Michael Cassady.
Cassady, in a true master class of physical and vocal differentiation, clutches this two hander tightly with both hands and never lets go as he plays both sides of the kopiyka, portraying Amos and The Artist. Certain plot specifics that would explain the why and the how are better left discovered, but it should be stressed that these are two entirely separate characters coming from entirely different backgrounds and circumstances and Cassady acquits himself winningly on both counts. The choices he makes when approaching each character are so studied, so nuanced, so technically proficient and committed that it is no exaggeration to say there were times the fact that I was watching one character, let alone one actor, essentially have a conversation with himself completely left my mind as I bought into the idea wholesale that I was watching two distinct individuals speaking to one another. Later on in the play when the line of demarcation between these two Kievans becomes decidedly blurred, Cassady’s performance only grows subtler and more impressive.
Early in the play, Amos tells the story of a trip he took on a tour bus shortly after arriving in Kiev to, of all places, Chernobyl. Amos was in awe of the villagers he saw drinking water from the contaminated streams, sleeping in the decrepit ruins, going about their lives as they were being slowly irradiated. As Amos told the story, you could tell he was romanticizing these people and, whether he knew it or not, condescending to them as well. This is the problem with people like Amos, the tourists who view people’s lives the way others see museums or hotels. Observing someone else’s existence through a keyhole, inventing an essence based on your own narrow lens, and turning their life into a lifestyle. Something to be commoditized and fetishized; a contaminated wellspring of irradiated suffering from which they imagine real feeling and great art must flow. Substance they can wear like somebody else’s coat. I wouldn’t want to live in a place as drug-addled, twisted, and broken as the one we’re shown— a sentiment that could be applied to either the setting or its protagonist’s fractured mind— but for an hour or so, guided by the bold, inventive hands of those bringing the story of Amos to life, it is well worth a visit.
Amos: A Play with Music is currently running through November 16th. For tickets, click here.
Thank you to Taylor Winters for the photography in this article.