The Understudy - Truly Kafkaeque

By Bob And Karen Isaacs

A quirky backstage comedy by the talented Theresa Rebeck is on the boards at Hartford Stage Company under the steady direction of Rob Ruggiero.

The premise is simple; Harry, the understudy, (played as a total naïf by Andrew Benator) arrives for a first rehearsal. He does this with a bang as he manages to fire a pistol stage prop. (Is this a reverse of the Chekhovian theory that if you show a gun at the beginning of a play it has to go off before the play ends?) The play in rehearsal we believe is a version of Franz Kafka’s novel, “The Castle.” This alone has to set off a series of expectations since Kafka is a master of metaphysical surrealism. After all, his most famous story, “The Metamorphosis,” begins with the protagonist awakening in his bed to discover that he has been transformed into a gigantic insect.

The Understudy takes its cue from that sense of absurdity and the quality of uncertainty that pervades so much of Kafka’s work.

At any rate, Harry meets the actor, Jake (Matthew Mantling) whom he is to understudy. They are physically totally different; Jake is a large outgoing man while Harry is thin and some what taciturn. Jake, who is also a film star, can’t conceive of Harry understudying him, and Harry has disdain (and some envy) for Jake, as an action movie star.

The resolution for this is Roxanne (Jayne Paterson), the much put upon stage manager who has to reconcile Jake’s frustrated with Harry’s blundering which goes so far as to question his character’s motivations and the staging. And as if this isn’t enough, we quickly learn that Roxanne, a former actress, and Harry were lovers a few years ago when Harry apparently walked out, just weeks before their wedding.

Roxanne, intent on making this arrangement work, settles into a rehearsal with the chief problem that the woman in charge of the setting (neither seen nor heard) has confused the settings totally, so inappropriate sets, music and lighting begin to appear. Nonetheless Roxanne plows on.

Frankly you never know what’s going to happen next and so we’ll leave you with the indecision and no elucidation. You’ll have to go to TheaterWorks to get the complete picture, if what you will see is the complete picture or just so much more uncertainty.

We liked this very much and enjoyed the contrast among the actors and the kind of Kafkaesque madness that permeates the work. Rebeck realized that there will be all sorts of absurdities and uncertainties and plays them out brilliantly.

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