According to the myth of the starving artist, one must endure misery for the pure joy of making art. It's a romantic idea, to be sure, but what happens when merely surviving isn't enough? In LMNO Theatre Company's production of The Understudies, Jeff Bedillion's playful "flirtation" with Jean Genet's The Maids, a pair of starving artists decide to stage a rebellion. The understudies, Ami (Maiken Wiese) and Evadne (Stefanie Eris), plot the demise of the star, Donna (Jennifer Susi), who is the diva of divas—demanding, high maintenance, cruel, and spoiled.
Although this is meant to be the tragic story of Ami and Evadne, in the end, oddly enough, it's easier to sympathize with the villainous Donna. Whether or not this was Bedillion's intention is unclear, but his script leaves us little opportunity to root for his underdogs. Instead, in the midst of a rather overwrought and unbalanced production, a seemingly heartless character wins our hearts.
Likable or not, Donna's understudies certainly suffer for their art. Ami and Evadne live like sardines in a tiny apartment, toil away as understudies (glorified tech crew) for a thankless director, and spend the wee small hours of the morning performing in their "safe place," a late-night cabaret show emceed by a drag queen. They also have their respective backstage dramas. Ami frolics in the light booth with the stage manager, while Evadne has recently accused their director of sexual harassment.
But their lives, at least by their estimation, are finally about to change. They begin to enact a fantasy in which Evadne (played by Ami) fights with Donna (played by Evadne) to the death. Although they always stop before its completion, they decide to kill Donna with a cup of poisoned tea. But, as so often happens, circumstances conspire against them, finally suggesting that destructive personalities often destroy themselves.
Genet based The Maids on an actual event in the 1930s in which two maids killed and mutilated their employers. Bedillion smartly extends this conceit to theater, where hierarchies abound. When repressed and beaten down, he proposes, those at the bottom of the totem pole will eventually plot their rise.
Unfortunately, Ami and Evadne aren't written or performed with enough humanity to make the story work, and their game of charades rambles on interminably in the first scene. While Bedillion has penned a pleasing style of elevated dialogue, the female fighting too often devolves into petty and shrill scream-fests, and it's difficult to see the dimension in these understudies.
Ironically, it is when Bedillion tries to be his most melodramatic that he (perhaps unwittingly) creates moments of emotional truth. And as (prima?) Donna, Susi steals the show with her stunning dressing-room scene, employing superb comic timing and stylized characterization in her mercurial tirades. She unveils Donna's emotional neediness, and when she expresses her wish to "take off the mask" and be an understudy herself, the result is poignant, even more so when it is followed by a gale of manic laughter.
Bedillion channels Genet by evoking a French mood, beginning with his use of marvelously gritty Edith Piaf music. Anna Peterson's well-defined lighting contributes to the foreboding atmosphere; her exquisite illumination of a taxicab's interior is a particularly haunting touch. With its exposed brick walls and darkened basement, Under St. Marks is the perfect venue for a piece exploring the sinister corners of humanity.
In addition to The Maids, The Understudies echoes another powerful piece of drama, last season's The Pillowman, in which the line between fantasy and reality was horrifically blurred. While that territory could be more artfully explored in The Understudies, Bedillion's inquiry into the debauchery of fame, celebrity, artifice, and, of course, theater raises intriguing questions about the price we pay for our art and the hierarchies in which we live. Ami laments, "We're lucky enough to survive, but not quite lucky enough to live." And if living is the goal, sometimes surviving just isn't enough.