Arts & Culture

Alec Clayton: ‘The Understudy’ by Harlequin Productions worthy of a sellout every night

The three cast members of the “The Understudy” by Harlequin Productions in Olympia are, from left, Jason Haws as Harry, Jessica Weaver as Roxanne, and David S. Hogan as Jake.
The three cast members of the “The Understudy” by Harlequin Productions in Olympia are, from left, Jason Haws as Harry, Jessica Weaver as Roxanne, and David S. Hogan as Jake. Courtesy of Harlequin Production

It is a shame that more than half of the seats were empty at Harlequin Productions’ opening-night performance of “The Understudy” by Theresa Rebeck. Potential audience members who could have been in those seats don’t know they missed the funniest comedy to grace South Sound stages this season.

“The Understudy” is much more than just laughable. It is smart and multilayered, performed by a trio of outstanding actors who play off each other so marvelously you’d think they were married to each other.

The premise is a previously undiscovered play by novelist Franz Kafka is being produced on Broadway. The three-hour show is a hit, playing to sold-out houses eight shows a week, when an understudy is brought in to memorize lines and stand by to fill in if the big-shot movie star has to fill in for the bigger-shot movie star he is understudying for. In other words, Harry (Jason Haws), is the understudy for the understudy, Jake (David S. Hogan). By requirement of the union, the company must rehearse the understudy — one rehearsal only.

Shall we say things do not exactly go swimmingly at the rehearsal.

Jake, the big-shot movie star who is filling in for Bruce, the bigger-shot movie star who is talked about but never seen, clashes with Harry from the moment they meet. So much so that they start off waving a gun at each other from the get-go. But don’t worry. It’s not a real gun. Harry explains that to the audience. Harry spends a lot of time talking to the audience, which is crazy, because the house is empty. The only other people there are the greatly harried stage manager, Roxanne (Jessica Weaver), who spends a lot of time running around like a chicken with its head cut off and screaming at Harry and Jake and Laura, her unseen assistant stage manager in the booth who is stoned and keeps operating the wrong lights and sound and pneumatic set pieces at inopportune times.

If this sounds like your typical play about an incompetent theater company, it is not. It is much more than that. The humor comes not from jokes and mishaps with props, but from the situations the three characters find themselves in and how they react to each other. In addition to being farcically funny, it is a believable and realistic (some might say slightly exaggerated) look into the world of theater, a sensitive treatment of complex relationships between real people carrying real baggage. The scenes from the Kafka play they are rehearsing make it clear this is no parody of Kafka; it is believably a play that could have been written by Kafka. And much in the personal relationships between the three characters on stage is Kafkaesque.

I can’t imagine finding any three actors more perfectly suited to the parts. Hogan and Weaver are Seattle actors. Hogan has extensive film and television experience, has done a lot of Shakespeare and is a three-time Seattle Times Footlight Award winner. His character, Jake, is almost a straight man to the other two. Hogan plays him with a lot of subtlety that is comically shattered by shouting. Weaver has been seen once before on the Harlequin stage in last season’s “Two Gentlemen of Verona,” in which she gave a hint of the comedic talent on full display in this show — with energy and intensity that would be overwhelming if it wasn’t so funny.

Haws, a longtime favorite at Harlequin, is clearly a comic genius.

The set by Linda Whitney is gorgeous, especially the dungeon scene with its odd angles and perspective, and the storm scene viewed through windows is worthy of the greatest B-horror movie.

Finally, there is a twist at the end that is totally unexpected and incongruous, but which audiences will discover — when they get over the unlikeliness of it — is perfect, the only possible way this thing could end.

All of those empty seats should not happen. This show should be sold out every performance.

Check Alec’s blog at alecclayton.blogspot.com for reviews of other area theatrical productions.

The Understudy

When: 8 p.m. Thursdays-Saturdays and 2 p.m. Sundays, through March 25.

Where: State Theater, 202 Fourth Ave. E., Olympia.

Tickets: $20-$34.

Information: 360-786-0151; harlequinproductions.org.

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