- OnStage Connecticut Critic
I was well acquainted with the last two shows I saw at my alma mater Quinnipiac University [QU] – the student-directed “Pillowman” and the Main Stage “Spring Awakening” (which I reviewed for this site) – so I was excited to see QU’s latest offering “The Shadow of a Gunman,” a play I was completely unfamiliar with. But while seeing a show cold can offer a rare thrill, it turned out that my unfamiliarity was a bit of a hindrance rather than a plus when it came to my enjoyment and evaluation of “Gunman.”
Perhaps I’m getting ahead of myself. “Gunman” is a highly political sketch of life during the Irish War of Independence, written by Sean O’Casey in 1923 only three years after the play’s setting. It concerns Donal Davoren (played with gruff sensitivity by the ever-versatile Gerard Lisella), a poet living in war-torn Dublin and his roommate Seumus Shields (Ryan Devaney), a shifty, bumbling salesman. Until a violent interruption late in the second act, “Gunman” is mostly scenes of Davoren and Shields being visited by other inhabitants of their tenement building. There’s overeager Tommy Owens (Justin Furtado, making a big impression in a small role), sweetheart Minnie Powell (Maggie Richardson) and a married couple comprised of good-natured Mrs. Grigson (Christina Comizio) and her happy drunkard of a husband (James Miller). Other neighbors are played by Sean Davis, Eric Pfeiffer, Amber Hopwood and Liam Richard, with professor Timothy Dansdill rounding out the cast as an auxiliary.
With the exception of Dansdill, who needed to dial back his performance to fully belong in the restrained proceedings, the cast was uniformly strong. “Gunman” marks the final performance of senior Lisella who has been in a staggering 14 shows at Quinnipiac. While Lisella has gravitated towards stylized or comedic roles in the past (highlights include a manic manservant, a vampire and a homosexual shark) Davoren is one of his most subtle and fully realized characters. Also working against type is Comizio, more accustomed to playing flirty heroines, whose heartfelt performance as a harried middle-aged woman was beautifully and maturely rendered. Both Lisella and Comizio end the show on an incredibly strong, emotionally honest note, cementing that they are two of the brightest stars I’ve seen emerge from Quinnipiac Theater. Devaney and Miller, both gifted comic actors, also managed the exact right balance of humor and pathos.
The talented cast was hampered, however, by the use of Irish accents. While most of the actors handled the dialect well, it left some line readings stilted and many others hard to understand. Here is where my “Gunman” naiveté became a disadvantage as, between the accent, fast-talking characters and my general ignorance of Irish history and lingo, I lost quite a lot of dialogue, especially during the first act. Since “Gunman” is loosely plotted, keeping up with the story wasn’t a problem but I did find myself straining to comprehend some of O’Casey’s lyrical yet unpretentious prose, which contained gems like: “That’s the Irish people all over - they treat a serious thing as a joke and a joke as a serious thing.”
The other looming query came with the plot, which felt disjointed and languidly paced. Characters came and went, with some spending too much time on stage and others, like the pivotal Minnie Powell, leaving too quickly. Whole scenes are spent pacing around the apartment, watching Shields get dressed (and undressed and dressed again), listening to the pair chitchat. Part of this must lie within O’Casey’s script, which never quite came together in a fully satisfying way, although I do wonder if directors Crystal Brian and Aleta Staton could have turned up the heat a bit. I’d imagine that, even in its downtime, this play should crackle with a sense of urgency and doom; the pot always at a rolling boil, ready to overflow. Here we only occasionally reach a simmer.
Other directorial decisions worked better. An onstage Irish band, which played a preshow concert and during the show’s intermissionless act break added a lot of authentic atmosphere and charm. I also greatly appreciated Adam Riggs’ set, which used separate panels to create the apartment’s windows, door and fireplace. With an endless abysses of murky blackness just outside the windows and the bedroom quite literally fragmented, the set perfectly mirrored the turmoil and uncertainly on the Dublin street below.
Waiting for the show to begin, I realized that I have seen well over 20 plays at QU in my six-year affiliation with the school. It is not new to say that, even among Connecticut colleges and current students, Quinnipiac Theater is relatively unknown. For a university that highlights sports and health sciences, the arts are often treated like the school’s neglected stepchild. I have known many students who never went to see a show during their college career and many professors who ignore the cultural offerings on campus. But those who do go are always utterly surprised at the level of talent onstage and off. For a small program that doesn’t get much love from the university itself or the surrounding community and generally produces political, dark and obscure works, I can safely say I have never seen a bad production. While I can’t rate “The Shadow of a Gunman” among my favorite Quinnipiac shows, it fulfilled and surpassed the department’s goal of teaching and entertaining through performance. “Gunman” taught me about the universal struggles during the Irish Civil War, introduced me to a noteworthy 20th century playwright and reaffirmed just how talented a troupe of actors this program can foster. I look forward to next season.