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WATERLOO -- "OK, maybe I am bitter," Harry tells the audience at the beginning of "The Understudy," tearing out pages of far more successful actors than him from People magazine and throwing them to the ground.

Harry's got a good reason to be bitter: He's the understudy for Jake, one of those successful actors Harry envies, and has to run lines with him during an understudy rehearsal for the play they're in. But Harry also doesn't respect Jake, who makes $2.3 million just to say cheesy lines like "Get in the truck!" in what sounds like "Sharknado"-esque flicks.

But it turns out Jake's bitter too: He's a fill-in for Bruce, the star of this Broadway play, and a bonafide movie star who makes 10 times as much as Jake and could have any role he wanted -- not just cheesy action flicks.

Stage manager Roxanne gave up entirely on her acting career and now has to put up with the tantrums of jealous actors and a useless technical director who cues up the wrong scenes, if any scene at all.

And, if we're breaking the fourth wall, we'd do well to remember that actors Joe Frenna, Mike Schlumbohm and L.C. Kent -- playing Harry, Jake and Roxanne, respectively -- are acting in a community theater production, far from the bright lights and audiences (and pay) of their roles on the play-within-a-play on Broadway.

Everyone's envious of someone, and simultaneously is the object of someone else's envy, goes the working theory of "The Understudy," a comedic study in working yourself out from underneath that thinking.

Now playing at the Hope Martin Theatre at the Waterloo Center for the Arts through June 2, the Theresa Rebeck play is designed to get you thinking about inequality, said director Greg Holt.

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"The majority of good actors labor in obscurity, working several jobs and appearing in tiny professional theatres for $50 a performance," Holt wrote in the show's program. "A tiny percentage of actors make a million dollars a week to appear on a hit TV show or star in a blockbuster movie."

There are examples all over the internet of actors making incomparable amounts of cash for what appears to be very little work. My favorite example of this is Vin Diesel, who made more than $54 million for the voiceover -- just a voiceover -- of Groot in 2017's "Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2." (In case you're not familiar, the character -- who is a tiny talking tree -- simply says "I am Groot" over and over, and is voice modulated to boot.)

By contrast, Joe Frenna's Harry in "The Understudy" experiences a full range of emotions, throwing himself around the stage, and acting his heart out -- believably. I'm not sure what, if anything, he's paid to perform, but I'm guessing it's not anywhere close to Groot money.

In a just and deserving world, Harry, and Frenna, and Diesel, would be fairly and equally compensated for equal effort and talent. We don't live in that world, and we will never live in that world, and so we have to find a way to happiness in the world we do live in.

Maybe it doesn't make sense that Kafka has his actors dance at the end of this play-within-a-play. Or perhaps, in the end, dancing for dancing's sake makes a whole lot more sense than bitterness.

Get tickets to "The Understudy" at wcpbhct.org.

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Staff Writer

Staff writer at The Courier 2005 (college intern), 2007-2012, 2015-present. Graduate of UNI 2006. Three-time Iowa APME award winner (investigative reporting 2008, lifestyle feature 2016, business feature 2018)

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