A doppelgänger is a spirit that looks exactly like a living person, or someone who looks exactly like someone else, but who is not related to that person. In The Doppelgänger (an international farce) written by Matthew-Lee Erlbach, Steppenwolf Theatre’s new comeuppance comedy, actor Rainn Wilson portrays both a rich British copper baron and his nincompoop American double. The Brit has fallen comatose from mistakenly ingesting an animal tranquilizer on the eve of a big deal; the kindergarten teacher who replaces him must negotiate in his place to save the Central African Republic. With a madcap cast of self-caricaturing performers, in a wild ride through layers of ridiculous conceits, this is a fast-paced, funny, decidedly cynical look at corruption, racial/class structure, and what happens “in the room where it happens”.
Along with Wilson who is the fastest moving target in the double role as The Man and his twin, the play features Sandra Marquez as his dense pretentious wife; Whit K. Lee as the quintessential Silicon mogul techie nerd; Michael Accardo as an officious, knee-jerk hawk US. Army general; Audrey Francis as an affected U.K. ambassador, a throwback to the days when the sun never set on the British empire; James Vincent Meredith as an Idi Amin-ish vanquished tyrant hopeful for a new dictatorship with Ora Jones as his contemptuous humanitarian spouse; Karen Rodriguez as a corrupt Brazilian moneychanger/disguised Russian spy ostensibly looking for a rich guy; Andy Nagraj as a sexually fluid Arab prince/investor; Celeste Cooper as the African maid who persuades the double to step in on behalf of “the people” and whose character’s sensibility drives the plot; and Dan Pleha as an additional cast member, the “corpse” of our male protagonist.
Written by and starring Chicago-land natives, with slapstick married to irony, and a big wind taken out of the sails of many modern “types” from moneyed travelers to brand-New Age brand lovers, this is an intelligent and politically astute sendup of the too comfortable, morally bankrupt, greedy government-spawned sociopaths who ignore the plight of The Other. A tad too long at 2 and ½ hours, it nonetheless delivers consistent laughs before bringing the audience up short in a stunning sucker-punch ending, taking down any smug and self-satisfied viewers who thought they were going to ride a tidal wave of sophisticated jibes right out of the theatre. It’s a very entertaining show with a lot to say.
Author Matthew-Lee Erlbach has crafted a big, character-rich, pointed message inside a bizarre universe, portrayed by a truly talented and extremely game cast, directed with satiric take-no-prisoners panache by Tina Landau. With spot-on sensibility, Scenic Designer Todd Rosenthal places us in a mansion in Bangui filled with stuffed endangered species and 10 doors to facilitate entrances and exits, lit by comfortably clear lighting design by Scott Zielinski. Costume Designer Clint Ramos drapes (and undresses) the action with clever touches of sartorial wit, to the strains of wacky yet appropriate sound effects and intriguing original reggae and Ghanian-chant infused music by Michael Bodeen and Rob Milburn. Kudos goes to Physical Comedy Consultant Jeff Jenkins and Company Vocal Coach Gigi Buffington for the multiple zany antics, sword-fight scenes, sexualized grappling and understandable accents/diction seen and heard throughout the production.
The world premiere of “The Doppelganger (an international farce) will run through June 2nd, 2018, at Steppenwolf’s Downstairs Theatre, 1650 N. Halsted Avenue, Chicago. For information and tickets, go to the Steppenwolf website
All photos by Michael Brosilow