Wednesday, September 16, 2015

The Understudy—Artists Repertory Theatre—SW Portland



Kafka and the Artist

This comedy-drama is written by Theresa Rebeck and directed By Michael Mendelson.  It is playing at their space at SW Alder St. and SW 16th Ave. through October 4th.  For more information, go to their site at www.artistsrep.org or call 503-241-1278.

Ah, the secret life of the Artist.  What is it like to lay your guts out there on the stage for the whole world to see and not know how it will perceive you?  It is frightening, horrifying, exhilarating, and the highest high you can ever achieve.  But, at its low points, when there is no platform to display our wares, it is a Kafka-like Hell in which we are nobody of any importance.  Such is the nature of this fickled, prancing beast we call Art.

Kafka’s world would not approve of Artists, but Artists would have understood Kafka.  The need of individualism, the grip of isolation, the cry to be noticed, is the world of Kafka’s “heroes.”  And, in this play, the actors are presenting one of his shows.  Also, like all theatrical productions, those who are behind the scenes, truly see and experience the world as it is.

Harry (Gavin Hoffman) has auditioned for and gotten the role of the second understudy to the star of the show, Bruce, a very expensive big name from the films.  He has played bit parts but his dream is to be on Broadway, which now he is.  Problem is that the stage manager, Roxanne (Ayanna Berkshire), he has known before, and she has not gone “quietly into that good night.”  In fact, she was an actress herself at one point until the world, which is “too much with us,” gave her a good crack on the head, and took its toll on her emotional and artistic life.

Another sticking point in this show for Harry is that the first understudy, Jake (Jared Q. Miller), who he is to rehearse with, feels that Bruce is a god, making Jake a sort-of demi-god, and he and Roxanne are looking for nothing more than a puppet to go through the motions.  But Harry, being a true artist, wants to spread his wings a little and show what he can do.

Also, the lighting person (never seen) seems to have her own ideas of what should be presented onstage and, therefore, the stage seems to have a life of its own.  Caught up in a real-life Kafka world, are they?  Life imitating Art, or vice-versa?  You’ll have to see for yourselves.  But one thing I can reveal is that Artists, in the end, tend to stick together because, after all, there is no one else like them on earth who would understand them…is that not Kafka-like, as well?

Kafka, like Beckett (Waiting For Godot playing at NW Classical Theatre Collaborative now), was an existentialist writer, too.  His books, and films of them like The Trial (Orsen Welles and Anthony Perkins) and The Castle (Maximilian Schell), are quite good but they show a very bleak world.  The Understudy, and it’s response to that vision, show the true colors of what humans can attain when they are allowed to be Free to express themselves as they will.

Miller looks and plays to the tee the part of a man going for the big bucks first regardless of the crap he has to do.  He has an epiphany of sorts by the end and we see that he is more than just a handsome action-hero type.  Well played, as he comes off as a jerk at first but we like him by the end.  Berkshire, too, gives us a together-gal on the outside but a seething volcano underneath.  She, too, goes through changes as the play progresses.  This young lady is someone to watch, as she can play the many layers, good and bad, of a being, and you care about her.  Hoffman is terrific as the catalyst, an actor chomping at the bit to be unleashed, but knowing he has to play the game in order to get anywhere is this cock-eyed world.  He barrels ahead two steps, then retreats one, all the while slowly making progress forward.  You hate him at times, then appreciate him, all a tribute to the actor’s talent.

And the fifth character, unseen, is the set itself, which, as mentioned, takes on a life of its own.  It well may represent the invisible world at large, putting road blocks in our way or changing our courses, all to see just how we will respond.  Mendelson has picked a winner and he should certainly understand the subject matter, as he is one of the best in his field!  I’ve always appreciated his talent, whether on the “boards” or directing aspiring artists, he a true Master of the Arts himself.

I recommend this show.  If you do see it, please tell them Dennis sent you.