Walking Shadow Theatre Company is a small company that husbands its resources wisely and efficiently. So the credits for not only a “Blood Designer” but two “Blood Assistants” in the program for “The Coward” raised an eyebrow.
Indeed, there will be blood in this finicky comedy, but it has more in common with a “Saturday Night Live” sketch than a Wes Craven film — an absurd spoof of the idea that shooting someone represents virile honor.
Playwright Nick Jones, best known for TV’s “Orange Is the New Black,” dresses his satire of the once-fashionable practice of dueling in the foppish trappings of 18th-century Britain.
A boorish, prominent member of society is incensed that his son Lucidus quailed when another man called his horse fat. Future acts of effrontery must be met with the challenge of a duel, the father states. The weak-kneed Lucidus responds obediently and when an old man gives him the stink eye, the game is on.
Jones dots his dialogue with profanity and the odd anachronism (“We’d be a power couple!” exclaims an enthusiastic young woman) so the effect of the play is an artificial universe in which old customs stand in for modern memes of revenge and glory (“American Sniper,” anyone?).
The playwright overreaches his material by at least a half-hour. “The Coward” could be a sharp stiletto at 75 minutes. Instead, two hours of lurching and fumbling finally gets us to that deliciously bloody duel that in “Hamlet” might be termed a tragedy. Here, actor Suzie Juul couldn’t keep a straight face on Friday’s opening night, daubed with more blood than “Carrie” on prom night.
Director Amy Rummenie has cast her actors cross-gender. It’s a reasonable choice, given the thinness of this material, but it largely has the effect of confusion. Jones wrote his men as fancy lads who enjoy a good pie-tasting of an afternoon. That such dandies would find honor in the macho art of legal murder has an ironic tang.
Is Rummenie perhaps suggesting that women are just as capable of summoning up enough stupid testosterone to settle scores with a gun? That’s a reasonable thought, but Jones’ satire of masculinity — the one thing the play has going for it — loses a bit of its sting. Briana Patnode’s Lucidus never strikes us as mannish or even distinctive in any way. Neither do her chaps, Juul and Shelby Rose Richardson. Charlotte Calvert plays a mercenary who enjoys the chance to take Lucidus’ place in duels, but Calvert would never be confused with a thug.
Only Jean Wolff as the fatuous and blood-happy father, and Linda Sue Anderson, as a doddering but sly old servant, feel full as characters. Wolff particularly harrumphs in a way that betrays the taste of red meat in her mouth.
Actor Chase Burns, who crosses over to play Isabelle, quite steals the show with his ridiculous performance. He turns what had been a straight-ahead comedy into an absurd farce, which seems to be the direction Rummenie wanted to take this entire enterprise.
Too much, though, lands as tiresome gruel. So thank you, Tyler Olsen of RawRedMeat Productions and your assistants for turning on the hemoglobin. Just wish we could have gotten there sooner.