It’s a shame that more than half the seats were empty at Harlequin Productions’s opening-night performance of The Understudy by Theresa Rebeck. Potential audience members who could’ve been in those seats don’t know they missed the funniest comedy to grace South Sound stages this season. The Understudy is much more than just humorous. It’s smart and multi-layered, and performed by a trio of outstanding actors who play off each other so marvelously you’d think they were married to each other. Two of the characters almost were.
A previously undiscovered play by the great author Franz Kafka is being produced on Broadway. The three-hour-long show is a hit that plays to eight sold-out houses a week, when an understudy is brought in to memorize lines and stand by to fill in if the bigshot movie star has to fill in for the bigger-shot movie star for whom he’s understudying. In other words, Harry (Jason Haws) is the understudy for an understudy, Jake (David S. Hogan). By requirement of the union, the company must rehearse the understudy, but for one rehearsal only. Shall we say things don’t go swimmingly at the rehearsal?
Jake, the bigshot movie star who’s filling in for Bruce, the bigger-shot movie star who’s talked about but never seen, clashes with Harry from the moment they meet. In fact they wave a gun at each other from the get-go. But don’t worry, it’s not a real gun. Harry explains that to the audience. Harry spends a lot of time talking to the audience, which is crazy because the house is supposedly empty. The only other characters there are the harried stage manager, Roxanne (Jessica Weaver), who spends a lot of time running around like a chicken with its head cut off and screaming at Harry and Jake and Laura. Laura is her unseen assistant stage manager in the booth, who’s stoned and keeps operating the wrong lights and sound and pneumatic set pieces at inopportune times.
If this sounds like the typical play about an incompetent theater company, it’s not. It’s much more than that. The humor comes, not from jokes and mishaps with props, but from situations the three characters find themselves in and how they react to each other. In addition to being farcically funny, this is a believable (if slightly exaggerated) look into the backstage world of theater and a sensitive treatment of complex relationships between real people carrying real baggage. Scenes from the Kafka play they’re rehearsing make it clear this is no parody of Kafka; it’s a believable play that could’ve very well been written by Kafka. Much in the personal relationships between the three characters is Kafkaesque.
I can’t imagine finding three actors more perfectly suited to the parts. Haws, a longtime favorite at Harlequin, is clearly a comic genius. Hogan and Weaver are Seattle actors. While Hogan has extensive film and television experience; he’s done a lot of Shakespeare and is a three-time Seattle Times Footlight Award winner. His character, Jake, is almost a straight man to the other two. He plays Jake with subtlety comically shattered by shouting. Weaver’s been seen once before on the Harlequin stage, in last season’s Two Gentlemen of Verona, in which she gave a hint of the comedic talent on full display in this new show—with energy and intensity that’d be overwhelming if it weren’t so funny.
Linda Whitney’s set is gorgeous, especially the dungeon setting with its odd perspective and angles. The storm scene, viewed through windows, is worthy of the greatest B-horror movie. Finally, there’s a totally unexpected and incongruous climactic twist; but once they get over the unlikeliness of it, audiences will discover it’s perfect—the only possible way this thing could end. Those empty seats shouldn’t happen. This show should be sold out for every performance.
(This review appears courtesy of The Weekly Volcano.)
What: The Understudy
Where: Harlequin Productions’ State Theater,
202 Fourth Ave. E, Olympia
When: 8 p.m. Thursdays – Saturdays, March 2-25;
2 p.m. Sundays, March 5-19
How much: $20-$34
Learn more: 360-786-0151 | Harlequin Productions