Theater review: ‘The Understudy’ at Mad Cow

By Elizabeth Maupin
Elizabeth Maupin on Theater

Michele Feren, Brian Brightman and Josh Geoghagan in 'The Understudy' (photo courtesy of Mad Cow Theatre)

There’s something more than a little Kafkaesque about The Understudy. And it’s not just that, in the play-within-a-play at the center of Theresa Rebeck’s 2008 comedy, the scenery has a way of rolling in and out for no apparent reason and the sound and lighting have a way of switching on and off of their own free will.

You might also notice that nobody in The Understudy – not Harry, the title character, who’s beginning his rehearsals for a Broadway production of Franz Kafka’s lost masterpiece; not Jake, the action-movie star Harry is standing in for; not even Roxanne, the ever-efficient stage manager – has the slightest clue what’s going on.

But do not despair. Nobody turns into a giant cockroach in The Understudy, at least not in the brisk and funny production at Mad Cow Theatre. And there’s no room for century-old Bohemian gloom in a show with little else but laughs on its mind.

Rebeck, who is one of American theater’s current success stories, may have done her Kafka homework: She knows the Prague-born writer had a checkered history with women, that he wrote novels and stories about a trial and a castle and even one about a mouse who sings. But the Kafkaesque situation she’s interested in here is simply the plight of a man who’s stuck rehearsing a role he’s never likely to play.

Doesn’t sound so awful, maybe. But you try doing your job – a job you sorely need – when the guy you need to work with patronizes you at every step and the woman holding the stopwatch is the woman you left at the altar half a dozen years before.

Director Timothy Williams and the Mad Cow gang make The Understudy smart and slick: John Hemphill’s melodramatic lighting and Kurt Wagner’s equally over-the-top sound are just right, and the three actors are a pleasure, even if you’d run kicking and screaming from any rehearsal in which their characters take part.

Brian Brightman (Mad Cow’s She Stoops to Conquer) makes a minor movie star who’s utterly full of himself but oblivious to that fact: He’s perfectly willing to put up with his understudy as long as the guy gives him his due – and he has long since buried all misgivings about his failings deep inside. Michele Feren (PB&J’s Shhhh! and Sleigh, the Fringe’s Well of Horniness) displays a hardboiled Roxanne, the overtaxed stage manager who’s carrying around a suitcase full of hurt.

And you won’t want to take your eyes off Josh Geoghagan (Mad Cow’s Love Song, and the writer behind the Fringe hit Dog Powered Robot and the History of the Future) because his expressive face show so much hurt, pride and a whole lot in between. The shambling Geoghagan is a terrific physical comedian (just watch him try to get a gun out of his pocket), but there’s also plenty going on inside. When his characters clings to his role despite everything, you’re inclined to believe that maybe this play-within-a-play really is about something – and maybe being an actor, or even an understudy, is worth more than you might have thought. If you can judge by The Understudy, it’s a pretty swell job.

‘The Understudy’
What: Mad Cow Theatre production of Theresa Rebeck comedy.
Where: Mad Cow Theatre, 105 S. Magnolia Ave., Orlando.
When: 8 p.m. Thursdays-Saturdays, 3 p.m. Sundays, through Aug. 28 (also, 8 p.m. Aug. 24).
Running time: 85 minutes, with no intermission.
Cost: $24 general, $22 seniors and students, $15 or pay what you wish Aug. 24.
Call: 407-297-8788.
Online: madcowtheatre.com.

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