Wednesday, July 9, 2008

Call the Understudy

In May of 2006, my best friend had an extra ticket to Chicago Shakespeare's performance of both parts of Henry IV. This was a groundbreaking production for the company as it was invited to take place in the Royal Shakespeare Company's ambitious Complete Works Festival and was thus later performed in London. It was one of the best imagined productions of Shakespeare that could be imagined. The design was beautiful and flawless and the production featured all of Chicago Shakes' heavy hitters as a special feature to their work over the years.

Greg Vinkler anchored the cast as he reprised his role as Falstaff. For years he had been the king of Chicago Shakes' stage having played the role in previous productions of the Henry IV cycle as well as the knight's appearance in Merry Wives of Windsor.

Just before the performance was to begin, Artistic Director Barbara Gaines came forward to give the curtain speech where she announced that due to illness, Greg Vinkler would not be performing that afternoon. The role would be played, instead, by Kevin Gudahl.

Now Gudahl is no slouch as an actor and no stranger to Chicago Shakes' stage. However, seeing anyone go on in place of Vinkler in Chicago would be like watching Olivier's understudy do Hamlet; he's one of the main reasons audiences are coming to see the show.

The performance that followed is branded in my memory.

Falstaff is not a small part - especially when you are doing both parts of Henry IV. Gudahl had to perform the role with his script in hand. Yet you hardly noticed. His performance was so astonishing that soon you began to forget that he had his script at all even though he would reference it from time to time. He never seemed to miss a beat nor did he seem to ever be tripped up or loose his place.

The whole effect was something unbelievable. If Vinkler was giving a better performance, I couldn't imagine how he was doing it. Everything seemed so perfectly natural, which is is an immense feat considering the fat-suit Gudahl was wearing. Despite a wretched actor playing Prince Hal, Gudahl still managed to draw tears when the prince rejects his old friend at the end of the cycle.

(The picture for this article is actually Vinkler as Falstaff. I doubt Gudahl was even photographed in the role)

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