An effortless blend of high art and camp – with a hint of darkness
|Stage Left Theatre presents|
Review by Lauren Whalen
Stage Left Theatre loves taking risks. Some may ask how a play set in the eighteenth-century, when waistcoats, wigs and politeness reigned supreme, constitutes a risk. A fair question, but The Coward takes this question and turns it on its powder-haired head. Nick Jones’ new play set in old times is satirical and raunchy, and Vance Smith’s skilled direction highlights the violent traditions of the time period with pitch-black humor.
Lucidus Culling (Brian Plocharczyk) is the sole surviving son of blustery Parliament member Nathaniel Culling (Stephen Walker). Lucidus’ two older brothers met heroic ends in duels, but Lucius would rather join his friends for pie-tastings and marvel at the beauty of insects, than challenge anyone to a fight. When he’s finally challenged (thanks to an unfortunate misunderstanding), Lucidus hires common thug Henry Blaine (Steve Schine) to duel in his place. Not everything goes according to plan: Henry’s got more cunning than the average criminal, and has his eyes on a larger prize. And when she hears of Lucidus’ supposed success, the beautiful and spoiled Isabelle Dupree (Kate Black-Spence) is finally taking notice. What’s a coward to do?
Stage Left’s production of The Coward is not only the play’s Midwest premiere, but the first since its debut at Lincoln Center/LCT3 in 2010. After several award nominations (including one for comedienne Kristen Schaal’s portrayal of Isabelle), The Coward is now being made into a motion picture, and playwright Nick Jones now writes for the hit Netflix series “Orange is the New Black”. It’s no surprise that this play has enjoyed so much success: Jones’ dialogue is funny and sharp, the story just the right blend of wacky and cutting. With its 18th-century setting and elaborate wordplay, The Coward appeals to the inner snob in each and every theatergoer, but continues to surprise with unexpected bits of darkness. It’s an effortless blend of high art and camp, with a hint of horror. Jones brilliantly takes the script beyond the extended “Saturday Night Live” sketch it could have been, elevating it into a two-hour laugh riot with intelligence in every syllable.
Strong production values supplement The Coward’s excellent script. Aly Renee Amidei’s costumes are vibrant and elaborate, utilizing rich fabrics and an elegant color palette while still allowing the actors to engage in acts of comic violence. Katherine Arfken’s set is simple, with a lovely painted backdrop and plenty of room to play. Special kudos go to sound designer Alex Romberg: the score is an absolutely delightful grab bag of classical arrangements of rock and pop tunes, everything from Europe’s “The Final Countdown” to Florence and the Machine’s “Shake It Off.” (My sister and I ended up playing Name That Tune with one another during intermission.)
The cast is equally robust. Though he seemed to be struggling with laryngitis, Plocharczyk successfully navigated the twisty dialogue and portrayed Lucius with foppish glee. Walker gives Lord Douchebag a run for his money with intentionally overblown vocals and stick-straight posture, and Black-Spence trills with aplomb. Schine’s Henry Blaine is equal parts hilarious and threatening (sometimes both at once), and Robert McLean plays a variety of minor characters (including Lucius’ butler), giving each part such distinctive traits that I had to remind myself he was only one actor.
I’ll always have a special place in my heart for Stage Left, as their Farragut North (directed by Smith and starring Plocharczyk) was my very first assignment for Chicago Theater Beat. In the past two years, their continuous innovation, genuine risk-taking and thoughtful execution have kept me a loyal fan. Even if I’m not a fan of a particular production, I respect Smith and his ensemble for never doing anything halfway. The Coward keeps these traditions alive: in the galaxy of September openings, it’s a shooting star with plenty of spark.
The Coward continues through October 5th at Theater Wit, 1229 W. Belmont (map), with performances Thursdays-Saturdays at 8pm, Sundays 3pm. Tickets are $20-$30, and are available by phone (773-975-8150) or online through TheaterWit.org (check for half-price tickets at Goldstar.com). More information at StageLeftTheatre.com. (Running time: 2 hours, includes an intermission)
Photos by Johnny Knight
Brian Plocharczyk (Lucidus Culling), Kate Black-Spence (Isabelle Dupree), Steve Schine (Henry Blaine), Stephen Walker (Nathaniel Culling), Robert McLean (Friedmont, Derek, Old Man, Finn), Ian McLaren (Gavin Klaff), Spenser Davis (Robert Blythe), Eric Leonard (Egbert, Earl, Messenger), Jordan Williams (u/s Lucidus)
behind the scenes
Vance Smith (director), Katherine Arfken (scenic design), Emmaline Keddy-Hector (production manager), Jason A. Fleece (dialect coach), Brian Plocharczyk (fight choreography), Claire Nelson (stage manager), Nate Dion (asst. stage manager), Andrew Hildner (technical director), Julian Pike (lighting design), Aly Renee Amidei (costume design), Alex Romberg (sound design), Jeff Shields (prop design), Skye Robinson Hills (dramaturgy), Seam Studios (graphic design), Johnny Knight (photos)