‘The Understudy’: Light-hearted comedy wreaks havoc

A loud gunshot cracked through the air of the Arena Theater the night of Nov. 15, followed by a crazed young man, who ran and pointed a gun at one of the audience members. Nobody freaked out though. It was all part of the preview performance of Theresa Rebeck’s comedy, “The Understudy,” directed by drama professor Gregory Lush, on stage Nov. 15-19.  

This 90-minute comedy began with a bare stage and one lone light until Will Frederick charged onto the stage with a prop gun in his humbling role as Harry, one of the actors rehearsing for aBroadway production of Franz Kafka’s “The Castle.”

Portraying the down-on-his-luck actor who failed at getting his ideal role in an action movie, Frederick could not have been better suited for the role of Harry in Rebeck’s play-within-a-play. His main competition as an understudy is the egotistical Jake, a good-looking young actor played by Raeid Makhamreh, who mistakes Harry for a janitor. That sets off the awkward competition between the actors as they try to rehearse scenes. The ongoing rivalry between them kept the audience thoroughly amused throughout the play.

Once Harry spouts off that Jake has no talent, the conflict deepens until stage manager Roxanne takes charge. Raven Lanuza-Brown had the stressful role of following the script and refereeingthe competing actors. She gave a strong performance, showing her frustration when one thing after another goes wrong in rehearsal. The three-member cast, Frederick, Makhamreh and Lanuza-Brown, are all Richland drama students. 

In one scene, Jake tries to get serious and explain to Harry how in “The Castle” there’s a kind of “existential overlap” with the text, and how it helps to “have a sense of the universe,” according to Kafka,” but Harry just doesn’t get it. There, Roxanne’s orders to the control booth with an unseen technical crew member named Laura, and things go completely awry. She calls for no music or lights. Instead, music and lights appear. Not a single technical order of Roxanne’s production goes as she wants it. 

In addition, Harry and Roxanne have a dismal past. He dumped her two weeks before their wedding and she never lets him forget it. Her wedding dress still hangs in her closet. 

In one humorous scene that adds to Roxanne’s misery, Harry and Jake sit at a table chatting and eating the two bananas which are supposed to be props. In another, the prop gun gets lost and the frazzled Roxanne finds it under some Jake’s used underwear. In her frustration, she complains that there are no women in the Kafka play. 

What made this production of “The Understudy” so successful, in addition to the student cast, is the exciting dialogue between the characters. The comedy ends with the three of them coming together, doing a little dance with some snowflakes falling on them. In this light-hearted comedy, the message is, we all live in a ludicrous world but we just try to make the best the best of it. 

Lush, who has read all of Kafka’s works and has been a huge fan since childhood, said that in Kafka’s world, “everybody is in a state of existential crisis.”

“They have no control over what is going on in their lives,” he said. “They feel like they’re just being led along this road and have no real choices. The characters in ‘The Understudy’ are facing the same thing.”