Meet the Rogue

Live theater. Unsolicited commentary.
From Detroit to Lansing.

Carolyn Hayes is the Rogue Critic, est. late 2009.

In 2011, the Rogue attended 155 plays, readings, and festivals (about 3 per week) and penned 115 reviews (about 2.2 per week).

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Theaters and Companies

The Abreact (Detroit)
website | reviews | 2011 SIR

The AKT Theatre Project (Wyandotte)
website | reviews

Blackbird Theatre (Ann Arbor)
website | reviews | 2010 SIR

Detroit Repertory Theatre (Detroit)
website | reviews

The Encore Musical Theatre Co. (Dexter)
website | reviews

Go Comedy! (Ferndale)
website | reviews

Hilberry Theatre (Detroit)
website | reviews | 2010 SIR

Jewish Ensemble Theatre (West Bloomfield)
website | reviews

Magenta Giraffe Theatre Co. (Detroit)
website | reviews | 2010 SIR

Matrix Theatre (Detroit)
website | reviews | 2010 SIR

Meadow Brook Theatre (Rochester)
website | reviews

Performance Network Theatre (Ann Arbor)
website | reviews

Planet Ant Theatre (Hamtramck)
website | reviews

Plowshares Theatre (Detroit)
website | reviews

Purple Rose Theatre Co. (Chelsea)
website | reviews

The Ringwald Theatre (Ferndale)
website | reviews

Tipping Point Theatre (Northville)
website | reviews | 2010 SIR

Threefold Productions (Ypsilanti)
website | reviews

Two Muses Theatre (West Bloomfield Township)
website | reviews

Williamston Theatre (Williamston)
website | reviews







« The Do-Over | Main | Nunsense »

The Understudy

When a dream goes unrealized, sometimes knowing that you would have succeeded has to be sufficient. And for a performer, it feels like the bulk of the job. Williamston Theatre offers a backstage pass to the agonizing love affair of an actor, his craft, and the business that hates him in The Understudy, by Theresa Rebeck. In this densely comic production, director Rob Roznowski does more than sneer at a flawed system, instead sounding out the basest joy of invention that resonates with every artist.

For this behind-the-scenes tale, the conventional spectator-performer divide is ingeniously revamped by one orienting backdrop: overlooking an expanse of empty theater seats, we’re suddenly right onstage. Designer Bartley Bauer opens up every square of Williamston’s fluid playing area to nuts-and-bolts adornment; from unrefined backs of set pieces to thick wires running up walls to the complex semaphore of spike-tape marks, he spares no loving detail of theatrical miscellany. Similarly, Alex Gay’s lighting scheme uses the conspicuous noise of shifting color gels to preserve the no-illusions onstage feel. Lest the production being rehearsed slide into afterthought, sound designer Julia Garlotte unleashes great unsubtle music cues, which support the parallel stresses of the rehearsal in progress while also providing some overt commentary about the underlying pretension of the current project. What little is shown is the comically overproduced stuff of nightmares: a star-studded Broadway production of a three-hour Franz Kafka play.

Playing out over the course of a single rehearsal, Rebeck’s text is hardly shy about her take on the necessary evil that is the partnership of art and business, of which commercial Kafka is just one glaring example. On the surface, art has nothing to do with what’s happening onstage; the work being shaped will almost certainly never be performed. This is a put-in rehearsal, an economical fallback that readies the understudies to go on: in the unlikely event they’d be needed, confessional Harry (Tony Caselli), the occasional narrator, would go in for charismatic Jake (Drew Parker), the action star with something to prove, who would go in for an even bigger-name celebrity, who doesn’t even have to be there. The rehearsal is run by Roxanne (Michelle Held) the stage manager, an already thankless job written into an exponentially more thankless role — massaging outsized egos, managing a worthless unseen stagehand with harpy-like insistence, and interacting with Harry for the first time since he broke their engagement by simply disappearing. Costume designer Melanie Schuessler effectively breaks down the archetypes, highlighting what each character’s job means to his identity: the mouthpiece of Artistic Integrity is there to work, in any-old street clothes; his Hollywood up-and-comer nemesis is all sharp business dress, waiting on a call for the next seven-figure movie deal; and the stage manager wants to survive without sweating too much, with a pencil always in reach.

Although the characters cannot escape typification, Roznowski and company find the humanity in each, which allows for great discoveries in individual relationships and the ensemble as a whole. A cute turn on Chekhov’s first-act gun allows one character at a time to conveniently disappear, which parlays into Caselli and Held acidly hashing out old wounds, Parker and Held bonding over their craft (which they cherish as much as the business seems to disregard), and tech-enabled eavesdropping that speeds the conflicts’ progress. While their characters find great variety in petulant sniping and shaky accord, Caselli and Parker’s best work together is in the few snippets of actual rehearsal that sneak into the play: to create scenes so amazing and organic they justify ardent praise is not easy, but the work here passes with flying colors. Collectively, the ensemble journeys toward a simple but rewarding payoff, a truthful celebration of the spellbinding beauty of creating theater and the exceptional connections that are its byproducts.

Running 90 minutes without an intermission, The Understudy gains personal and ideological ground without advancing much story, a parable self-referentially criticizing a punishing art and often devastating business, while also doting on the people who love it despite themselves. There’s space enough for some “business we call show” soapboxing; happily, though, these are fallible characters that offer much more than their convictions, their cut-and-dried exteriors opening up to rich layers. Although viewers with theater experience may be particularly affected, any viewer moved to do something unrewarded for purely personal fulfillment should connect with the unbridled passion at the heart of this production.

The Understudy is no longer playing.
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