The Doppelgänger @ Steppenwolf Theatre

3.5 out of 4 stars

Trying to overthrow a government, reopen a copper mine and then possibly brunch are the weekend plans of wealth British businessman Thomas Irdley in Matthew-Lee Erlbach’s The Doppelgänger (an international farce). When Irdley suffers an untimely accident just before a critical African copper deal is signed, his unwitting (and witless) American doppelgänger is thrust into negotiations to avert intercontinental disaster. Chaos erupts, leaving us wondering: whose side are we supposed to be on… and who will save Africa???

Erlbach writes with a politically and socially charged vigor that wonderfully illustrates the adversity of current events happening in our world today. Erlbach truly encompasses a writing style that tackles large existential issues with a poised irony as his characters navigate through tongue twister rationalizations and extremist behaviors. The 11-member cast is led by actor and comedian Rainn Wilson in the roles of Thomas Irdley, a posh businessman, and Jimmy Peterson, a well-intended slightly idiotic guy from Quincy, Illinois. Wilson’s composure and dedication to each character is impressive. The mastery in his comedic talents is obvious in the navigation of jokes and dialogue. An extra facial expression or milking the joke just enough to exaggerate the moment is a skill and helps keep the audience engaged to the momentum of the piece. Wilson is an Emmy nominated and SAF award-winning actor with Chicagoland roots who has found himself in a variety of comedic and theatrical roles through his career. He is best known for playing the inimitable “Dwight Schrute” for nine season on NBC’s Emmy award-winning comedy The Office. Wilson not only is accomplished in stage and screen, but founded the YouTube channel Soul Pancake with 2.5 million subscribers and is a published author of his memoir, The Bassoon King: My Life in Art, Faith and Idiocy.

The pacing and physical humor is where Tina Landau’s direction really shines. Landau, with credits on directing/conceiving SpongBob Squarepants: The Broadway Musical currently on Broadway, alongside Jeff Jenkins (physical comedy consultant), and Matt Hawkins (fight choreographer) really maximized the space. Landau’s blocking of the 11-member cast dynamically flows through the multi-level stage, while keeping in mind the physical demands of slapstick comedy. Physical comedy can be dangerous particularly in moments of one individual pretending to be “deadweight” or interactions between characters. Jenkins’s consulting definitely contributed to the skyrocketing physical humor and had the audience laughing nonstop. Jenkins has a background with Ringling Bros. & Barnum and Baily Circus, as well as teaching physical comedy at Clown College, The Theatre School at DePaul University and dozens of consulting and choreography in theatrical productions. The mastery in his craft accentuates the written humor with a control and dedication the actors showcased. This controlled blocking and physical humor merged into Hawkins’s fight choreography to add a triple layer to this already hilarious performance. Matt Hawkins fight choreographer a 13 time Jeff Award nominee and 5 time winner with some exciting credits happening later this year including: Spring Awakening (Notre Dame), Macbeth (CST), Guards at the Taj (Steppenwolf) and Support Group for Men (Goodman).

The set design by Todd Rosenthal, with credits in 29 production designs at Steppenwolf, excels at the visual representation of the work through the use of texture, detail, functionality and scale. The set is a wonderful blend of cultures not only in artifacts and props from Britain and West Africa, but told through textures and patterns in a rich warm toned color palette. Not only was it a visually stunning set, but the functionality is where it excelled. The movement required on stage flourished by the functionality of 11 doorways, stairs and not to mention plenty more access points on this set. With a complex working set, the requirement for the behind stage must posses a natural flow that seamlessly aids the actors to their cues effectively, which this set certainly did. Bravo! 

There are thematic moments reminiscent of Tracy Letts’s latest dark comedy The Minutes, which premiered the past fall at Steppenwolf. The use of humor to ease the audience and entertain allows dark underlying themes to subconsciously be taken for granted. This style of writing also allows a larger character development. James Vincent Meredith, who also played in The Minutes, gives a stunning performance as African ex-dictator Michael Masaragba. Meredith’s performance possessed such expression and depth. It really highlights the current event of crumbling political systems being challenged by change, while radicalism runs rampant. Additionally, a quick kudos to Meredith for the control over his character's motorized chair that really was just a fun moment. Karen Rodriguez is a joy to watch. Her charisma in the portrayal of the outrageously sassy and sexually fueled Brazilian Marina is obscenely funny. Rodriguez has recently been seen on Steppenwolf’s stage in The Rembrandt and in the critically acclaimed one woman show The Way She Spoke at Greenhouse Theater Center.

Unfortunately, farces are not to everyone’s taste. It's a tricky balancing act with varied subject matter and level of offensiveness. With this being said, I believe that Matthew-Lee Erlbach's work pushes the bounds of that comedy and really challenges audience to see where ludicrously improbable situations turn into reality. Erlbach writes non-stop questioning morality with references to all kinds of iconic comedic actors, writers and programming. It is a hodge-podge of "Fawlty Towers" and National Lampoon with nods to Abbott and Costello and Dr. Seuess. This array of sources may be the fact in and of itself. The tensions and exploits pulled from every troupe imaginable tackles the themes not far off from the world we live in. Some critics may consider it overreaching, but Erlbach invokes a stark truth to the ludicrosity of the world at large. Arguments emerge from definitions and meaning of words, self-interested intentions and extremist behavior is sadly a daily occurrence around the globe. Rather than just being responsible for a “like, share and post”, this work shines a harsh light on the mess the world is and leaves us shell-shocked.

The Doppelgänger (an international farce) runs now through May 27, 2018 at Steppenwolf’s Downstairs Theatre. Tickets are available through Audience Services (1650 N. Halstead), by phone 312-335-1650 or at steppenwolf.org.

Mary Crylen is a photographer and writer based in Chicago. She is an alum of Southern Illinois University of Carbondale with dual degrees in English and Photography. She possesses a sincere passion for the arts and believes zeal shows through work. Follow her on Twitter!