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Warren Gerds/Critic at Large: Review: ‘The Understudy’ a juicy, heady comedy in Sturgeon Bay

Critic At Large

Third Avenue Playhouse

Director Alan Kopischke, upper left, and cast in clockwise order, Chike Johnson, Katherine Duffy and Ryan Schabach in “The Understudy” production for Third Avenue Playhouse.

STURGEON BAY, Wis. (WFRV) – The first joke is a Franz Kafka play is a big hit on Broadway.

Further: It’s an ‘undiscovered masterpiece.”

Further: A superstar in action mega-movies has the starring role.

The play “The Understudy” is about said masterpiece as it is being rehearsed with key players, with lots of mayhem happening behind the scenes.

“The Understudy” was performed livestreamed Friday night – one and done – as part of the “PlayWorks 2021” play reading series of the professional Third Avenue Playhouse.

Instead of standing on a stage holding scripts, the players performed from separate locations and had a serious advantage: Their vibrant, nuanced, expressive acting was up close and personal on each viewer’s screen. It was like a movie of all closeups.

Many times in “The Understudy,” playwright Theresa Rebeck serves a meaty menu. Woven through are thoughts along the plane of Franz Kafka – an “existential overlap within that text.”

Theresa Rebeck also weaves in the backstory of Franz Kafka who never married but really liked women. The character Harry (Ryan Schabach), who is in the story as the understudy, meets again with his former fiancé, Roxanne (Katherine Duffy), who happens to be the show’s stage manager. When Harry left Roxanne, it was two weeks before their wedding. Ouch. Harry just left. Ouch, ouch.

Harry is understudy to Jake (Chike Johnson), whose latest explosion-filled action flick hauled in $67 million on the opening weekend with him in the starring role.

Harry speaks to the audience – a theatrical ploy – and rips mainstream movie explosivity and notes of Jake, “He is talent free.” (Ryan Schabach has especially flexible facial maneuvers).

Turns out, Jake is totally into Franz Kafka and can decipher his deep, dark, psychologically torn meanings. (Chike Johnson creates a sense of enthusiasm for literature along with a knowing way with human nature).

Rosanne is caught in the middle between her intransigent former almost-groom and the sizzle of celebrity of Jake. Mostly, she is a true, always-calm stage manager, though she does get tipped over the edge.

The acting in the production was really cool – the actors working like crazy in their roles, with director Alan Kopischke helping guide the coolness and the excellence.

Just one example: Katherine Duffy gets a chance to show how much meaning grows if a character Franz Kafka wrote as a male is switched to female, and the same lines build a stronger intensity. Theresa Rebeck wrote that for Roxanne, and Katherine Duffy got to pull off the scene.

In the talkback Friday, the participants were all for bringing “The Understudy” back as a mainstage production at Third Avenue Playhouse. A lot has to happen for that, but everyone seemed more than satisfied with the performances – each of which had moments of excitement in various forms.

It’s fascinating watching pros have at a heady, quirky, twisty-turny script up close – the up close of two feet away on a computer screen. Good stuff.

***

Creative: Playwright – Theresa Rebeck; director/stage direction – Alan Kopischke; technical director – Jon Ginnow; theater co-artistic directors – Robert Boles, James Valcq

Cast

Harry – Ryan Schabach

Jake – Chike Johnson

Roxanne – Katherine Duffy

Info on “PlayWorks 2021”: thirdavenueplayhouse.com

Copyright 2021 Nexstar Media Inc. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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