“Coronado” seethes, shines, and provokes as Renegade’s season opener
Dennis Lehane, a Boston native, is an award-winning novelist whose first venture into being a playwright is based on his short story, “Until Gwen” –published in The Atlantic and selected for The Best American Short Stories in 2005. ”Until Gwen” grew into Coronado, a play that made its debut in New York, in 2005, produced by the Invisible City Theater Company.
When Renegade Theater Company rebranded itself a few seasons ago, I wasn’t sure what to expect. But, if I had expected a simple trajectory of formulaic bawdy comedy shows on their stage, I would definitely have been proven wrong, not only in the past few seasons, but with their 2013 season opening, Coronado. Directed by Lee Gundersheimer–he also takes his turn on stage as part of the cast–Coronado is a dark journey into a shattered past, mixed with enough angsty philosophical dialogue to make one wince a little not just because it seems to be laid on a bit thick at times, but because it also strikes pretty close to home.
Putting on a show like Coronado means, of course, more calculated risk for the company. So far, the risk has paid off in terms of offering cutting edge, mostly inaccessible (outside of larger, more sophisticated urban locales) scripts and stories for the black box. This production has some notable performances in the mix of talent on stage and the show does push the envelope, in several directions.
The story’s cinematic style delivers, in alternating sequences, the stories of a vaguely psychotic woman and her doctor (Elizabeth Efteland and Zachary Stofer), a ne’er-do-well ex-con, Bobby and his obviously psychotic father (Paul LaNave and Lee Gundersheimer), and an unhappy, scheming vixen, Gina; and her earnest yet not-quite-stable lover, Will (Mikaela Kurpierz and Daniel Novick). The scenes take place in a seedy bar where secrets are revealed, murders are planned, and threats are made.
Lehane’s gritty storytelling keeps the audience engaged as much as the acting allows. Among the three sets of actors on stage, Gundersheimer and LaNave are the more compelling. Father and son, such as they are, share liquor and secrets under the low lights of the bar. Trading the bravado of shared hooker stories and challenging each other about the likelihood of real love, LaNave gives off enough seething, steady resentment to spark the fire that is Gundersheimer’s masterful performance. Cajoling, scheming, shaming his son into giving him information about the whereabouts of a valuable gem, Gundersheimer delivers moments of real scorn and ridicule that come, quite simply, with falling down into the abyss of his own character. Watching the flash of Gundersheimer’s eyes during a tirade, or the snarl of his lip when berating any sense of softness in his son, makes one feel like a true eavesdropper across the crowded bar to the point where one strains to hear what’s next, to see what’s next, and to wait for the inevitable explosion. Gundersheimer is a snake–a viper coaxing, attacking, and retreating from one scene to the next; his performance pushing buttons in LaNave’s own measured and steady counter-performance. We know Bobby’s life has been just as “off the grid” unpredictable as what is about to happen in the succeeding scenes. LaNave builds tension with his role–deceptively slow to warm during the opening scenes. There’s a pleasant arc to his acting that highlights the ever “on” pugnacity of Gundersheimer’s performance.
Zachary Stofer, I have maintained, is one of the most versatile actors on stage in Duluth these days. No role is too small for his immediate impact and whether he’s playing a crazed racist-spewing cop (A Steady Rain) or a dreamy, singing father (The Sound of Music) Stofer is a legitimate worker, realizing each role to its last moment before the lights fade. Stofer delivers a quiet, deliberate performance in Coronado, showing the ability to maintain the size of his character without being greedy for more. And, where less is sometimes more, Stofer, again, takes a role and makes it shine. Stofer’s doctor is a nervous, conflicted man with an inappropriate passion for an enigmatic, exciting but dangerous patient. Elizabeth Efteland’s provocative presence on stage sets the relationship between the two on a powder keg. She prods, threatens, and yearns for his attention. Efteland handles the sexual tension and the sexual dialogue with aplomb approaching the role as a cat playing with a mouse. She bats at the doctor’s discomfort, his guilt, and his obvious desire for her with parts jaded anger and parts amused arousal. It’s good casting, although, the only flaw is the apparent age of Efteland’s character in the overall storyline.
The third set of actors in the twisted tale of Coronado, Mikaela Kurpierz (Gina) and Daniel Novick (Will) provide the initial heat of the play with their forbidden desire for each other and their subsequent shackling together of fates over the demise of Gina’s husband Hal, played with intense presence by the never disappointing Evan Kelly. But, where the synergy of Gundersheimer and LaNave’s performance and that of Stofer and Efteland are palpable and chemically effective on stage, Kurpierz and Novick struggle with providing the sizzle needed to convey, with great believability, their love/hate passion for each other that is the crux of the storyline. Individually, Kurpierz delivers an underlying layer of sorrowful resentment to her performance, but that’s where it levels off and remains. While that’s the necessary ingredient to her character’s motivations, one could expect a heightening and then dramatic plunge of emotions at the varying stages of her predicament that enrich the emotional impact. But, too many times, it falls short of realism. For his part, Novick’s is a measured performance and capable, but in between moments of ferocious belligerence at the close of the first act, he plays the role so close to the vest as to make one wonder where, in the middle, he went with his acting. The connecting points–the rise and fall, are just as important in the action of the play as are the punctuation points.
Lacy Habdas inhabits the brief, but important role of Gwen, offering an emotional punch one doesn’t absorb until her final moments on stage, showing that there really are no small roles and making the most of every moment on stage can add depth and meaning where it is absolutely essential. Habdas highlights and draws out, with exceptional ability, Bobby’s other side, with tenderness and playfulness that underscores, with dramatic effectiveness, the evil in her midst.
Scenic design by Evan Kelly demonstrates a keen use of the black box space. The bar becomes the space and that’s more enveloping a strategy than setting it up away from the audience and it pays off in strides atmospherically. The sound design by Andy Bennett is effective although the timing of the lowering of the volume of the music and the cutting out points are mildly distracting at times, but not as to make it a technical flaw. The lighting design by Michael Cochrane is, in a word, “important” as it adds dimension to the dialogue and precision to the moods being created on stage. Technically, the show is well-executed–not to be unexpected with Renegade’s production values and standards that are appropriate for the space.
With risk comes gain in Renegade Theater Company’s 2013 season kick-off. Coronado delivers kick, itself, in some memorable performances, and in a twisted, provocative storyline that keeps the audience’s attention and proves, again, that bringing deliberate and challenging modern material to the local black box is a successful trajectory, both for the box office and for the artistic senses.
CORONADO. Written by Dennis Lehane. Directed by Lee Gundersheimer for Renegade Theater Company. WITH Mikaela Kurpierz, Daniel Novick, Zachary Stofer, Elizabeth Efteland, Paul LaNave, Lee Gundersheimer, Lacy Habdas, Evan Kelly, and Jennie Ross. The show runs Thursdays through Saturdays, February 7-9, 14-16, and 21-23 at Teatro Zuccone, 222 East Superior Street, Duluth. Curtain time: 8 p.m. This review was based on the Friday, February 8 performance.
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