Those who attend Artist Repertory Theatre’s season opener, The Understudy, will find themselves privy to the most misbegotten rehearsal in the history of theatre.

This is no exaggeration.

Three players playing two actors and a stage manager rehearsing a fictional Franz Kafka play. A theatre with a ghost in the machine. Absurdity. But isn’t that what Kafka’s all about? The only difference is, this play is funny.  Kafka? Not so much. Harry (Gavin Hoffman) is the understudy for Jake (Jared Q. Miller), an action film actor, who in turn is the understudy for the absent Bruce, a big-time action film star who is lured to Broadway and this miserable Kafka play for God-only-knows what reason.

 

Harry (Gavin Hoffman) and Jake (Jared Q. Miller) devour props in The Understudy at Artists Rep. Owen Carey photo.

Harry (Gavin Hoffman) and Jake (Jared Q. Miller) devour props in The Understudy at Artists Rep. Owen Carey photo.

Harry has a chip on his shoulder because he is underpaid and under-appreciated, not to mention he hates action stars. Jake has a chip on his shoulder about having to work with nobodies such as Harry and by not getting paid as much as Bruce. And stage manager Roxanne (Ayanna Berkshire), who is on hand to facilitate the rehearsal, is already angry, but very quickly becomes more so when she sets eyes on Harry. Add to that a small problem with the sound and lights, and we’ve got ourselves a play.

It is difficult to know whether to laugh or cry, but laugh I did. A lot. The three actors are so miserable that the things we laugh at skewer edgy. They make us squirm a bit, perhaps because we recognize life on life’s terms and it’s not pretty. This kind of thing has happened to all of us.

Theresa Rebeck’s play is all about the twists, turns, ironies and the absurdities of life–ultimately absurd, existential and thereby Kafka-esque. It’s performed as a long one act that seems to fly by in minutes.

The Understudy, under direction of Michael Mendelson, runs through October 4 at Artists Repertory Theatre. This is its Portland premiere.

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