Joseph Ritsch at Everyman

Joseph Ritsch is making his Everyman Theatre directing debut with "The Understudy" (Courtesy of Everyman Theatre, Handout photo / August 28, 2014)

If there's one thing theatergoers like more than a play, it's a play about theater.

The colorful world of backstage goings-on has fueled such absorbing dramas as Ronald Harwood's "The Dresser," which was a hit at Everyman Theatre last season, and "The Understudy," a recent Theresa Rebeck comedy that opens the company's season this weekend.

At the helm of "The Understudy" is Joseph Ritsch, in his directing debut at Everyman.

With credits that include several years as an ensemble member of New York's Jane Comfort and Company, Ritsch arrived in Baltimore from New York in 2008 to work on a graduate degree in theater at Towson University.

In addition to earning the degree, he co-founded Iron Crow Theatre Company, which spiced up the local scene with works from a lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender perspective; wrote an eerie play about serial killer Jeffrey Dahmer that Iron Crow staged twice to acclaim; and was named co-producing artistic director of Rep Stage, the professional company based in Howard County.

Meanwhile, Ritsch came to the attention of Everyman Theatre. He was hired as an assistant for the company's stagings of "Pygmalion" in 2011 and "A Raisin in the Sun" the next year.

"Those productions were guest-directed," said Ritsch, 45. "I did not meet [Everyman artistic director Vincent Lancisi] until one day when I arrived for a rehearsal of 'Raisin.' He said, 'My company really likes you,' and he hired me to be associate director for 'You Can't Take It With You.' That was a great experience. He's become a really important mentor to me and a really good friend."

Lancisi also engaged Ritsch to choreograph the company's production of "The Beaux Stratagem" in 2013 and then gave him the director job for "The Understudy."

Rebeck's play ran on Broadway in 2009, a few years before she created another look at the behind-the-scenes side of show business — the television series "Smash," about the making of a fictional Broadway musical.

"The Understudy" is set in a theater where Roxanne, an edgy stage manager, tries to keep a tight rein on a rehearsal between Harry, the new understudy, and Jake a minor film actor seeking to add a stage credit to his name. There's tension not just between the understudy and the star, but between Harry and Roxanne, who share an unfortunate past.

Just to make things a bit more complicated, the play being rehearsed is a long-lost work by Franz Kafka.

"Kafka never wrote a play, which is part of the comedy," Ritsch said.

Adding to the comic ingredients is an unseen, under-the-influence crew member who tends to send the wrong scenery onto the stage.

"It's an interesting, contemporary comedy that works in some Kafka-esque moments," Ritsch said. "The three characters are not really in control of their lives. The play is about their relationship, where they start and where they go. And the set is definitely a fourth character in the play."

As for the humans in the show, they are all members of Everyman's resident company — Clinton Brandhagen, Danny Gavigan and Beth Hylton.

"Rebeck calls her play a love story about theater artists and their work," Ritsch said. "I think it speaks to all artists, their personal love for their craft."

Ritsch, who starts directing rehearsals next week for the season-opener at Rep Stage, David Ives' "Venus in Fur," also squeezes in some teaching at Howard Community College.

"Actor friends in New York ask me, 'Why would you stay in Baltimore?'" Ritsch said. "I tell them, 'I'm artistic director of an Equity theater company and I'm paying all my bills. Tell me again, what restaurant are you working at?'"

tim.smith@baltsun.com

If you go

"The Understudy" opens at 8 tonight and runs through Sept. 28 at Everyman Theatre, 315 W. Fayette St. Tickets are $34-$60. Call 410-752-2208, or go to everymantheatre.org.

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