BWW Review: No Second String Players Here! Artists Rep Starts the Season Strong with THE UNDERSTUDY
Last weekend, THE UNDERSTUDY opened the season at Artists Rep. If this show can be taken as any indication of things to come, we are in for an excellent season.
THE UNDERSTUDY, by Theresa Rebeck, is a different sort of play. It shines a spotlight on an aspect of theatre we aren't accustomed to seeing, the "put in," or understudy, rehearsal for a Broadway show. This particular show is special though, because 1) it's Kafka -- well, not really Kafka, but a fictitious play inspired by Kafka's real novels The Trial and The Castle, and 2) the play was created around two movie stars -- that's who people come to see, so if one of the stars decides to leave, most likely the play will close. So, THE UNDERSTUDY is a play about a rehearsal for a show that doesn't exist for understudies who will never go on. Yes, you read that right.
But of course, the play isn't just about an understudy rehearsal. It's about meaning -- the meaning of money, the meaning of life, the meaning of meaning. There are three characters: Jake (played by Jared Q. Miller), the lesser-known movie star who plays a secondary role in the Broadway show and is also the understudy for the main role; Harry (Gavin Hoffman), who is the understudy for Jake; and Roxanne (Ayanna Berkshire), the stage manager. All three struggle to find their own meaning -- is your meaning in your job, in the amount of money you make, in another person? It gets pretty meta.
It's also pretty great. To start with, I really loved the play. You don't have to know Kafka, though Jessica Evans Irvines's intro in the playbill is definitely worth a read. The play is really about how things look different depending on where you're standing. For example, there is a whole discussion about the meaning of a banana -- to the stage manager, a banana is a prop; to someone who is hungry, a banana is food; and to an actor who makes $22 million per movie, a banana is too small to have any meaning at all.
It's also about finding your own meaning in events that seem totally random. I hope this isn't too much of a spoiler, but the last scene: awesome.
The cast and crew are among Portland's best. Jared Q. Miller is an excellent Jake, playing the role with the combination of bravado and insecurity you imagine movie stars really do feel when attempting to transition to the stage. Ayanna Berkshire is sympathetic as the exasperated stage manager. And you just really gotta love Gavin Hoffman, don't you? His Harry is the kind of guy you partly identify with and partly just want to strangle. His story -- as a not-so-young-anymore guy who hasn't really found his place in this world -- is the most compelling, reflecting a lostness that seems all-too-common in our society. Michael Mendelson's direction leads us through the ups and downs, the thrills and the disappointments, that make up not just the play, but this weird thing called life. Somehow, this rehearsal for a play that doesn't exist for understudies that will never go on starts to feel like the most important thing in the world.
Overall, I found THE UNDERSTUDY something of a surprise. It feels less like watching a play and more like eavesdropping on a mashup of backstage goings-on and a late-night literary debate in a dark cafe. It's also very funny (weird, right? Kafka and funny aren't words that frequently co-occur). So whether you like to throw down theatre jargon, consider yourself a Kafka-phile, or just like to laugh, I recommend you check it out.
THE UNDERSTUDY plays at Artists Repertory Theatre through October 4. For tickets, visit www.artistsrep.org.
Photo credit: Owen Carey