“Everyman Theatre opens season with crisp staging of The Understudy.”
Everyman Theatre manages to give The Understudy quite a boost, thanks to a beautifully matched, finely tuned cast directed with considerable flair by Joseph W. Ritsch. Above all, the staging underlines Rebeck’s affectionate homage to the world of theatre – the people, the anxieties and neuroses, the drudgery, the wonder.
As Harry, Clinton Brandhagen is a natural. No one in this town does the dazed look better than he does. And, from the moment he walks out, a scarf wrapped thickly around his neck like a life preserver, Brandhagen’s Harry is delectably at sea in this world of egos and Kafka. The actor also brings out Harry’s fundamentally endearing nature.
There’s a wonderful moment when Harry, after rehearsing some of the dense Kafka play, admits to Jake that “when I do the lines, something happens to my heart.” Brandhagen keeps those words from sounding cliched and helps the sentiment register deeply, genuinely.
All three actors, for that matter, shine in the play’s funny bits…they slip just as effortlessly into scenes aiming for something serious, reaching a particular high in the rather sweet, closing moments that The Understudy an unlikely touch of magic.
– Tim Smith, The Baltimore Sun
“Written by Theresa Rebeck and directed by Joseph W. Ritsch, ‘The Understudy’ delves into relationships between people and people’s relationship with their art.
The three-person cast has wonderful chemistry that brings an immediate comfort to the audience – we are watching an intimate exchange, but the actors effortlessly let us in.
Brandhagen is excellent as the clueless, self-pitying Harry, and Gavigan as Jake is flawless, balancing his movie star ego and brashness against his deeper insecurities concerning his talent and his worth.
‘The Understudy’ does joinery through some serious themes, but Everyman’s production delivers enough laughs and enjoyment watching these exceptionally talented actors work through their characters’ issues that it is totally worth the trip.”
– April Forrer, MD Theatre Guide
‘The Understudy’ at Everyman Theatre
by Robert Michael Oliver on August 31, 2014
Are you sick and tired of yet another big-budget Hollywood action-adventure film with angry tornados, humongous sharks, or killer asteroids? Are you sick and tired of yet another celebrity persona sucking up all the sunshine while the rest of humanity grovels in the dark? Are you sick and tired of the one percent making so much money that they behave as if they live in an alternative universe without poverty, war, disease, and death? Are you so sick and tired that the only thing left to do is … laugh?
Then Baltimore’s Everyman Theatre has the show for you. Theresa Rebeck’s The Understudy opened this week to a chorus of satiric laughs and biting, insightful one-liners. With a tightly drawn story and easily recognizable characters, The Understudy takes its audience into the backstage world of a Broadway show; and before you groan, “Oh no, not another theatre piece about a theatre piece!” it is important to know that the Broadway show we’re about to see is a Kafka and this backstage is the underbelly of the theatrical world.
Everyman company member Clinton Brandhagen plays Harry, the understudy in a two-person Broadway show based on Kafka’s The Castle, or maybe it’s the Trial. It really doesn’t make a difference: it’s Kafka and very few things could be stranger on Broadway than anything even remotely related to Kafka.
Mr. Brandhagen plays Harry with a down to earth, down on his luck, “but I’m not bitter,” enthusiasm that immediately wins the audience over. We’ve all been there, and anyone who has had to compete with a roomful of gloss knows what it feels like. Brandhagen’s Harry is hardworking and honest and full of faults: he just cannot compete in a celebrity-filled world where hype and hip means more than skill and creativity.
Harry is understudy to Jake, played with rising star good looks by Danny Gavigan. Gavigan negotiates with great skill the complexities of Jake’s character, coming on both arrogantly stuck up at the beginning and then vulnerable and open to discovery by story’s end. You see, Jake has just made a Hollywood blockbuster action-adventure film; so he thinks that he has finally arrived at “true” actor status, i.e., he’s made it. Having made it, he deserves the utmost in respect, unlike those groveling understudies who make their way in the world howling and grunting. His relationship with Harry and Jake’s transformation are one of the highlights of the show.
Directed by Joseph W. Ritsch, Rebeck’s The Understudy keeps its focus where it should be: on the story of three professionals doing their best to keep their careers and lives on track and at least a wee bit purposeful. The production’s pacing is spot-on, and the clarity of its tale sharp as a diamond.
Ritsch’s production team performed fabulously. Scenic Designer Daniel Ettinger has created some Kafkaesque sets to die for with each being a case study in point-of-view gone askew. His sets are only made visually more stunning by Jay A. Herzog’s lighting effects, with Neil McFadden’s sound and music effects adding just the right amount of spookiness. Finally, Kathleen Geldard’s costumes serve each character well.
Everyman Theatre’s tagline is “Great Stores Well Told,” and that could not be more in evidence than with its production of The Understudy. Its ensemble of three talented and well synced actors has taken Rebeck’s solidly constructed story of the three hard working professionals and brought it to life without hyperbole or glitz. As a result, that oh-so-crucial connection between audience and performer carries the day. We are not wowed by the theatrics, or stunned by the depths of despair; instead, we are engaged by the insight and the sheer humanity that the theatre can bring.
Running Time: Approximately 90 minutes, with no intermission.
There are many roles in a play. Some actors play the role of a "swing", an "understudy" or a "stand-by". What are they? A "stand-by" must learn the role of a leading player, must be at the theater (or nearby) at the start of the play and be ready to go on a moment's notice. A "swing" is an actor who must know many different roles in the ensemble, must learn the various parts of the music and choreography, and be able to play any part at a moment's notice. Then there is the "understudy". Normally, the "understudy" is in the ensemble, but also learns the part of another actor and must be able to go on when necessary. However, in the production of Theresa Rebeck's THE UNDERSTUDY, here the "understudy" is NOT in the play but must be at the theater to take the place of an actor who cannot go on either at the start of the play or during the play. Often, actors are notified in advance they will be going on and they get an opportunity to rehearse the role during a "put-in" rehearsal with the cast which is usually the day before or the day of their first performance.
I had never heard of a "put-in" until my daughter was both a "swing" and an "understudy" on Broadway. You will also hear, maybe for the first time, about a "put-in" rehearsal during the beginning of THE UNDERSTUDY which has just opened the season for the Everyman Theatre.
And what a great way to begin the 2014-15 theater season. Artistic Director Vince Lancisi has selected a funny and sometimes hysterical play to begin the season. Lancisi selected Joseph W. Ritsch to direct his first play at Everyman and he has done such a masterful job I'm sure he will be back for more. (Ritsch is also the Co-Producing Artistic Director of Rep Stage and he'll be directing David Ives' play VENUS IN FUR there October 1-19, 2014.)
Ritsch has worked with two thirds of THE UNDERSTUDY cast before. He was Associate Director and Choreographer of the Everyman's production of THE BEAUX' STRATAGEM with the immensely talented Clinton Brandhagen and Danny Gavigan. While Brandhagen has been a member of the Everyman's Resident Acting Company, this was Gavigan's initial role as member of the Company. What a way to begin. The other third of the cast is the incredibly talented Beth Hylton, also a member of the Company.
Thankfully, these three wonderful actors get a chance to shine thanks to the wonderful writing of playwright Theresa Rebeck. For some inexplicable reason, her television credits were not included in the program. Rebeck is best known for creating the NBC musical series "Smash" and has written for some of my favorite shows such as "Brooklyn Bridge", "LA Law", "NYPD Blue", and "Law and Order". She has a knack for comedy. Her play reminded me a little of the histrionics in NOISES OFF, another play that deals with backstage.
I'm sure many of my readers have been disappointed to hear that an understudy would be appearing in a show where you were hoping to see the talented lead. My first exposure to an understudy that I can recall was when I was so disappointed that I would see an understudy instead of Anthony Newley in THE ROAR OF THE GREASEPAINT THE SMELL OF THE CROWD. Another example was when I saw the original Broadway cast of SUNDAY IN THE PARK WITH GEORGE and an understudy took the role of Bernadette Peters.
Rebeck pokes fun at the Broadway use of movie stars on Broadway. But we are all guilty of this. I paid dearly to see Daniel Craig and Hugh Jackman in A STEADY RAIN and Jackman again in THE BOY FROM OZ. And I will also remember seeing the great Billy Crystal in 700 SUNDAYS.
The play opens with only a "ghostlight" on stage. For the first time ever, the audience sees the actual rear wall of the Everyman Theatre with its huge garage door. You then hear a gunshot piercing the empty theater where the play takes place. The gun is a prop and actor Harry (Clinton Brandhagen) is arriving for his "put-in" rehearsal where he will be playing the understudy to movie actor Jake (Danny Gavigan) who is also an understudy to the lead of the recently discovered play by Franz Kafka. Thus, maybe the play should be called THE UNDERSTUDIES. As it turns out, Harry auditioned for a film that Jake got which has just grosseed $67 million during its opening week-end. Harry says that's he's not bitter. "I'm not bitter. OK, I am a little bitter but that doesn't change the facts." For Jake is also an understudy to a significantly bigger movie star who gets $22 million per picture while Jake only makes $2.3 million per picture. The play is packing in audiences due to the big movie star. So, the setting is Harry, a talented actor, has to learn his part as an understudy to a "talent-free" movie star. He repeats a big line in the film that Jake delivers, "Get out of the truck!" The way he does it is hysterical. Brandhagan has a real way with comedy.
When Jake first arrives on stage, he believes an intruder is in the theater. When he questions Harry about why he is there, he insists to see his Equity Card. When Harry can't find it and mentions maybe someone stole it, Jake comments, "Who would steal an Equity card...maybe a SAG (Screen Actors Guild) card, but not an Equity card. When Jake accuses Harry of not knowing much about Kafka, Harry responds, "I'm been to a pub crawl in Prague."
Roxanne is the stage manager (Hylton) and what a role she has. She has no idea who the actor is that is coming to the rehearsal. (Harry had changed his Equity name.) When she realizes it's Harry, her former fiancé who six years ago had left her two weeks before their wedding, well, she's not a happy camper.
To make things worse, Roxanne has to deal with Lauren in the lighting booth who is so stoned, she mixes up sets, music and light cues. This adds to the humor. Director Ritsch has the actors use the aisles throughout the theatre and it works.
The play is both funny and poignant.
I won't tell you what happens when the lead movie star decides to leave the play. Does the play go on with both understudies? You'll have to attend to find out.
Wait until you see the great ending where Ritsch has the cast dance which he choreographed and he even includes the "Macarena". The audience loved it.
The play is greatly enhanced by the terrific scene designed by Daniel Ettinger, great lighting by Jay A. Herzog, effective sound and music by Neil McFadden and costumes by Kathleen Geldard.
The intermission-less play runs 90 minutes and flies by.