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Review: “The Cortez Method”

"The Cortez Method" Orlando Shakespeare Theater, photo by Tony Firriolo

“The Cortez Method” Orlando Shakespeare Theater, L to R: Paul Bernardo and Riley Clermont, photo by Tony Firriolo

By PAM HARBAUGH

With its professional world premiere production of Rob Keefe’s gripping new play, “The Cortez Method,” the Orlando Shakespeare Theater explores the frightening notion that humanity is on the line.

Of course, you don’t have to look far to see that: the threat of war, genetic modification of food, rampant greed, barbaric treatment of others and Mother Nature in turmoil.

Here, though, Keefe narrows this focus onto four people: a man, his pregnant wife, his brother and a neighbor. The man wants to keep the peace. His pregnant wife wants to sleep. His brother wants to borrow money. His neighbor wants to turn a quick buck. Each person is intent on getting what they want, no matter the cost. Goals collide, motivations intensify and savagery is crowned.

As he did with his 2011 direction of Yasmina Reza’s “God of Carnage,” Mark Routhier’s bold direction of “The Cortez Method” strips down characters to their sinew. But where “God of Carnage” began with civility, “The Cortez Method,” like its namesake, takes no prisoners. Indeed, this is “God of Carnage” on steroids. The laughs are fewer and much darker.

The setting – a kitchen undergoing renovation – is deceptively domestic. The only hint of impending terror is the orange vest Bill wears as he enters the stage. We soon learn the reason: It is Kentucky’s deer season. Indeed, in the background, rifles repeat throughout, punctuating moments of calm or quiet.

No doubt, this is a dangerous place made even more so by its inhabitants.

Paul Bernardo paints Bill as a hard worker who tries to keep the peace. He agonizes over the toll exacted by his wife’s “American dream” home and tries to maintain peace between her and his con-man brother.

Riley Clermont excites the stage in his big and brash portrayal of the brother, Walter. He digs into the meat of this man, throwing his arms wide and proclaiming “I’m Cortez, baby!” Anything he wants, he gets. And here, he presents yet another business idea to beleaguered Bill. It is Walter who incites the downward spiral. “You owe me,” he tells his brother. One truth is revealed, then another, cascading onto the stage and setting players into defensive action.

Suzanne O’Donnell spins a wonderfully enticing and believable portrait of Sara, Bill’s pregnant wife. An Army brat, Sara is determined to have a family and a home. Just listen to the way O’Donnell intones the word “home,” patting the expensive marble countertop as if it were breathing. “There will be life in this house!” she demands. This is her dream coming true. Just like Lady Macbeth, she screws her courage to the sticking place and urges her husband to do the same.

Melanie Whipple is menacing as Odette, a crack addicted hillbilly who appears in the second act. Sara keeps threatening that she will call Odette, that she’ll take care of everything. But it’s actually Odette whose lines are laced with the darkest humor, which Whipple handles with what one might consider an unsettling glee.

It’s exciting to see something as fresh as “The Cortez Method.” This new play is park of the Harriett’s New Play Series. It has all the hallmarks of going beyond these latitudes, so you might want to see it now while it’s only an easy drive away.

SIDE O’ GRITS: “The Cortez Method” runs through Sept. 22 at the Orlando Shakespeare Center, 812 East Rollins Street, Orlando. Tickets are $25. Call 407-447-1700 or visit www.orlandoshakes.org.