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Making Steppenwolf debut, Rainn Wilson doubles his pleasure in ‘Doppelganger’

Celeste M. Cooper (as Rosie Guerekoyame) and Rainn Wilson (as Thomas Irdley/Jimmy Peterson) in "The Doppelgänger (an international farce)" by Matthew-Lee Erlbach. | Michael Brosilow Photo

“The Doppelganger (an international farce)” is a very different sort of challenge for all involved — playwright, director and actors. With its trademark slamming doors, mistaken identities, pratfalls, verbal humor and sexual innuendo, a farce is sometimes viewed as inherently silly and flimsy.

But for this Steppenwolf Theatre production, the mission is to make farce something more than its usual parts.

‘The Doppelganger (an international farce)’
When: April 5-May 27
Where: Steppenwolf Theatre, 1650 N. Halsted
Tickets: $20-$99
Info: steppenwolf.org

As a comedy writer, playwright Matthew-Lee Erlbach was drawn to the crazy laugh-a-minute angle but he also saw farce as “a reflection of the world we live in.” The idea for “The Doppelganger” began to form after he started reading about the Central African Republic’s vast mineral resources and how workers were exploited as slave labor in the mines.

Playwright Matthew-Lee Erlbach discusses “The Doppelganger” during a recent chat at the Steppenwolf Theatre rehearsal studios. | Eliza Davidson/From video

“We have cell phones with lithium batteries in our pockets, and when you follow that trail of blood back to the lithium mine you are met with torture, rape and utter devastation,” Erlbach says. “I want to dismantle those power structures. This play might seem like a clown car but inside are very real issues.”

“The Doppelganger,” a world premiere directed by ensemble member Tina Landau, features Rainn Wilson (“The Office”) in a double role as Thomas Irdley, a copper mining magnate, and his doppelganger, Jimmy Peterson, a doofus kindergarten teacher from Illinois. All the farce tropes are here, including the obvious mistaken identities that occur just as a group of influencers gather at Irdley’s mansion in the Central African Republic to discuss a strategy to expel the current regime and get his mine up and running.

The cast also includes ensemble members Celeste M. Cooper, Audrey Francis, Ora Jones, Sandra Marquez and James Vincent Meredith.

Landau says Erlbach is “extremely funny and has a great knowledge of and instinct for slapstick and sight gags.” At the same time, he’s one of the smartest people she’s ever met.

“He is so knowledgeable about everything he is writing about, to the point where we’ve had to weed out some of the information because he has such a wealth of knowledge and he wants to share it all.”

Before television and film roles, Rainn Wilson (pictured at the Steppenwolf Theatre rehearsal studios) spent 10 years doing theater in New York and has long wanted to work with Steppenwolf. | Eliza Davidson/From video

Wilson, who first started acting while a student at New Trier High School and is best known for playing Dwight Schrute on “The Office,” recalls seeing Steppenwolf’s 1984 production of Chekhov’s “Three Sisters.” “It was so profoundly funny and sad at the same time,” he says. “I didn’t know that you could do that on stage.”

Before television and film roles, Wilson spent 10 years doing theater in New York and has long wanted to work with Steppenwolf. At first he wasn’t going to accept the “Doppelganger” role, “but the play really got under my skin and I found myself unable to say no. It’s risky and I love that. I couldn’t stop thinking about it.”

The cast of “The Doppelgänger (an international farce)” by Matthew-Lee Erlbach. |Michael Brosilow Photo

Wilson and new ensemble member Cooper, who portrays Rosie Guerekoyame, the African woman who runs the Irdley household and is determined to help her people get a better deal in the mines, are on stage for nearly the entire play. Wilson calls it the “hardest job I’ve ever done in my life.”

“What Rainn is doing is almost superhuman,” Landau notes. “His comedic instincts and knowledge are unparalleled. He is kind of leading the room by example in terms of style and commitment.”

Landau, who most recently directed the Broadway musical “Spongebob SquarePants,” says this is her first time tackling a farce and readily admits it’s “a challenge unlike any I’ve had before.”

Tina Landau directs a rehearsal for Steppenwolf’s world premiere of “The Doppelgänger (an international farce)” by Matthew-Lee Erlbach. | Joel Moorman

“It’s the closest thing I can think of to doing a big musical because what you’re really doing here is creating a structure, a physical form that has to be so perfected and precise that the actors can live inside of it.”

A description of farce that Landau loves goes something like “farce is not a distraction from our times, it’s an expression of what it feels like to be caught up in them.”

“I hope people leave feeling exhausted with laughter but ready to engage in the issues and become curious about things happening beyond their own backyard.”

Mary Houlihan is a Chicago-based freelance writer.