Friday, April 27, 2018

Review of The Doppelgänger (an international farce) at Steppenwolf Theatre

Once upon a time I went to a show and it was called The Doppelgänger (an international farce). It was by Matthew-Lee Erlbach, and it was directed by Tina Landau. It was about a man named Thomas (Rainn Wilson), a wealthy British copper mine owner living in Bangui, Central African Republic. His doppelgänger Jimmy (also played by Wilson) was basically his polar opposite; he was from the Midwest in the United States, a kindergarten teacher, and searching for himself by traveling across Africa. And Thomas accidentally takes zebra tranquilizer on the day he is supposed to make a secret deal with representatives of many different nations. And Rosie (Celeste Cooper), his maid and an activist, decides to cover up his incapacitation and have his doppelgänger take his place and convince the people at the meeting to adopt Rosie's plan for giving the mine workers better pay and circumstances. Hilarity ensues. It is about global activism, wealth, and power. I think this is a funny, important, and occasionally troubling show. I think it had some excellent performances.

I think it is really interesting that they put a farce and real issues in the world together in this play. I think it worked in a lot of ways, but also the way that farce tends to portray people as stereotypes seems more uncomfortable in the context of the real issues in the play. The play does address some very prominent and pressing issues that need to be addressed in theater and media more often. But then when you use farce to get the point across, it can be confusing to hear people laughing at genuinely disturbing images and issues. I think it is a good method to draw people in using comedy and then smack them in the face with some real issues when they are vulnerable and can accept it better. I think one of the reasons why this play affected me in a way that most other plays do not is this specific method that Ehrlbach uses. It did take me awhile to figure out how I felt about it, because it was a very different way of addressing things. I had to think and talk about it for a few days before I really got a grip on what I think the play is trying to do. I think it is trying to give people something they were not expecting but wrapped in a comedic packaging. At first I was distressed by the way the audience laughed at the stereotyping; there were many laughs I wasn't comfortable joining in with. But when I thought about it, I feel like we are all eventually supposed to feel uncomfortable with the stereotypes, even those who laughed at them at first. It is supposed to show a new way of thinking instead of simply condemning the way some people first responded to the caricatures.

There were some really funny characters in the show. I loved Marina (Karen Rodriguez) who was a money launderer and Prince Amir's (Andy Nagraj) girlfriend. She was very comfortable with her sexuality, had some lovely lingerie, and liked to use analogies about her personality. When she was dominating she would say she could be a ferocious cat and when she was sweet and innocent she would be a little kitten. She would make little tiny meowing sounds. I thought the analogies were hilarious and her facial expressions were just brilliant. Wen (Whit K. Lee) was a tech creator and the kind of a guy who wears Gucci pajamas, but he also was one of the only people who would call people out on their racism. Everyone else seemed to just be taking it. For some reason people kept saying he was representing China, but he was actually from the United States. It felt like his natural state of being was like a Kickstarter video. He had a lot of really funny moments where he would be super energized about something that no one else could understand.

This play mostly follows the story of Rosie and Jimmy. A lot of the comedy is generated from their relationship, because Rosie is about one hundred times smarter than Jimmy (and also than her real boss, Thomas). They start to develop this sort of messed-up friendship because of the lies they are fabricating together. Actually, by a certain point in the show they develop a real friendship when they both start to learn how to deal with and respect each other. There are some really great comedic moments they have together. One of my favorites was when Thomas's wife, Theresa (Sandra Marquez), comes back early and Rosie wants Jimmy to pretend to be Thomas around her, but Jimmy has no idea who Theresa is and he starts talking to Rosie about how he might really have a wife he forgot about. I felt as if that was the moment that captured his obliviousness and how much Rosie is struggling to try to keep everything together. And when Jimmy finally realizes who Theresa is, he says, "Oh, that wife!" That was especially hilarious because it was such a long time later that you had almost forgotten about it, and then he abruptly reminds you of his cluelessness. Rosie and Jimmy also handle things in very different ways. When Rosie is scared she uses the safe word she's established with Jimmy and asks if anyone would like some tea so she can take her partner in deception aside. Jimmy decides that the most rational way to handle fear was to treat everyone like five year olds or adopt an insanely over-the-top British accent to remind everyone how British he is, which was absolutely ridiculous and hilarious. Also, for a lot of the negotiating scenes between the representatives of the nations, Rosie would be in the background lugging Thomas's body and trying to find a place to hide it, which is absolutely hilarious to see someone hauling around a limp body in the background of important scenes. Her physical comedy was absolutely flawless and hilarious. Even though she is frequently in the background, I feel it is mostly her story, even though at the beginning of the show she is literally told by Thomas to just "be the maid." I feel like that is her inciting moment because it spurs her to help the country that she loves even in the face of people who have more power than she does. She also has big tactical changes throughout the show, which are really surprising and interesting.

People who would like this show are people who like limp body physical comedy, addressing issues through farce, and ferocious kitties in lingerie. I think people should go see this show and then talk to me about it. I really would love to see what other people thought about this show, because I think it can be taken in so many different ways. It is something you have to talk about to start to understand it. It had some amazing comedic performances. I enjoyed it.

Photos: Michael Brosilow

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