THE UNDERSTUDYBy Theresa Rebeck
Amphibian Stage Productions
Directed by Rene Moreno
Production Stage Manager - Karima Abdulla
Scenic Designer - Sean Urbantke
Costume Designer - Susan Austin
Lighting Designer - Angelina Vyushkova
Sound Designer - David Lanza
Choreographer - Frieda Austin
Fight Coordinator - Carman Lacivita
Chuck Huber - Harry
Sarah Koestner - Roxanne
Carman Lacivita - Jake
Reviewed Performance: 7/22/2012
Reviewed by David Hanna, Associate Critic for John Garcia's THE COLUMN
The synopsis of Theresa Rebeck's play The Understudy suggests that the play is full of broad characters, cliche jokes and lurid backstage antics. Yet the writing is more thoughtful and intellectual than the plot suggests. Amphibian Stage Productions' new performance of The Understudy manages to both be a simple backstage comedy and a philosophical exploration of the theater.
Rebeck's script is deceptively complex as layer after layer of humanity is exposed in characters that are initially the epitome of stereotype. The play-within-a-play concept is usually used either as a means for slapstick farce such as Michael Frayn's Noises Off; or as a comment on the absurdity of the theater and art as in Tom Stoppard's early plays. The Understudy walks the line between both conventions, adding in a fresh dose of honesty. Rebeck doesn't shy away from the business of theater, even as she digs into the philosophy behind the art. There's talk of casting conflicts and auditions as the stage manager tries to track down an errant technician.
It's no accident, however, that the "production" the show centers around is an adaptation of Franz Kafka's The Trial. The existential questions Kafka posed in his works are embedded into the characters' lives and the conflicts and disappointments they cannot escape. Just as the actors are rehearsing a play about the futility of fighting against society, they are working in a profession completely informed by profit margins and public opinion. The Understudy starts as a simple comedy but by the end exposes the central conflict of artists and performers: whether it's possible to pay the bills and find artistic fulfillment in today's society.
The only drawback to Rebeck's script is that it's a slow burn; it takes 20-25 minutes before the characters begin to open up so their humanity can shine through. Director Rene Moreno keeps the show spare and minimal, evoking the feel of a rehearsal and exposing the facade of the theater. Moreno allows the play to unfold and reveal itself rather than hammer the message home immediately. It's the best choice for the show, revealing the characters' complexity slowly to draw the audience in. There are moments that drag as certain arguments or conversations are repeated three or four times. Moreno allows for those moments though, and compensates by highlighting the truly hilarious and profound scenes within the show.
Chuck Huber is brilliant as Harry, the titular understudy. Harry appears to be the typical struggling actor: well trained, idealistic, and slightly pretentious. He's looking for artistic fulfillment even when he's virtually guaranteed never to appear onstage. Huber is incredibly expressive and full of energy but has perfect timing to know when to hit his marks. He draws laughs even when he's being deadly serious, which shows his full commitment to the character. Huber doesn't mug for laughs as Harry; instead, he plays the character as believably as possible. That grounded nature is what makes him so funny onstage, and also so human. He's a perfect fit for Rebeck's vision of the character.
Harry's counterpart is Jake, a generic lower-tier movie star played by Carman Lacivita. Jake is one of those young up-and-coming actors entertainment magazines like to talk about being "the next big thing." Lacivita has the look and stature of those actors but also brings depth to his character. Jake continually refers to notes and research on Kafka as he expounds on the play and Lacivita plays these scenes without irony. There's an earnest passion in his portrayal that breaks down the common perception of film actors as all looks and no talent. Lacivita doesn't quite match the energy of his co-star but his performance helps anchor the production in reality.
Sarah Koestner is not as solid as her counterparts playing Roxanne, the stage manager and Harry's one-time fiance. Koestner is at her best in the managerial role, barking orders and attempting to maintain some semblance of order. Yet as Roxanne's personal life unfolds, Koestner doesn't seem believable, almost rushing through her personal emotions. At one point, in her largest monologue, she talks about how Harry's abandonment makes her so angry that she can't finish sentences. The conceit of the speech is that quite often the sentences are clipped. Instead of pausing to allow the audience to realize this and laugh at it, Koestner continues to blow through the speech. Her pace renders her character one-dimensional, closed off from the other two. The lack of vulnerability creates an imbalance of power and often demands extraneous energy from the others.
Sean Urbantke's scenic design is well executed in the intimate space, exposing the wings and drawing attention to the lighting by hanging numerous sandbags. Urbantke immediately establishes that what the audience is watching is people onstage during rehearsal. Still, the set for the Kafka production is incredibly versatile, with walls opening to reveal bars and long tables sliding in from openings. The characters in the show are incredibly impressed by the set, and Urbantke makes sure that the audience is as well.
Angelina Vyushkova and David Lanza play what might be the fourth role in the show, that of the stoned technician who cannot understand a single demand Roxanne asks of her. Roxanne asks for lighting for a scene and instead she gets the sound at full volume. When Jake simply has a conversation with her, the table gets moved offstage. Vyushkova and Lanza time those moments perfectly, as well as evoking incredible emotion in the rehearsal sequences. The designs are subtle but noticeable, always in service of the story and mood of the moment.
Susan Austin's costume design is simple but fitting. Harry's costume is loose, casual, and relaxed, just as his character is. Jake, on the other hand, has workout attire and character shoes on, as though he could be asked to move at any time. Jake's attire is form-fitting to show off his body while Harry has no illusions about his attractiveness. Austin doesn't have a lot to design with only three characters in contemporary wear, but she does a great job accompanying the characters.
The fascinating aspect of The Understudy is how it lingers after it ends. It's not just a comedy; there's a thoughtful message left for the audience to consider. Actors and performers give numerous reasons why they continue in such a difficult business - fame, money, "passion". The Understudy though, reveals the truest motivator for those who choose acting for a career - it's just so much fun to do. Amphibian's newest production is a window into that sense of joy and community performers find with each other even when rejection rears its ugly head.
Amphibian Stage Productions
The Hardy and Betty Sanders Theatre
Ft Worth Community Arts Center, 1300 Gendy Street, Fort Worth, TX 76107
Plays through August 5th
Thursdays-Saturdays at 8:00 pm, Sundays at 2:00 pm
Tickets are $25 for adults, $20 for seniors and $15 for students
To purchase tickets, theatergoers may call (817) 923-3012
or email: firstname.lastname@example.org or visit www.amphibianproductions.org.