Warren Gerds/Critic at Large: Review: Acting captivates in ‘Leonard Pelkey’ in Sturgeon Bay

Third Avenue Playhouse Alan Kopishke in The Absolute Brightness of Leonard Pelkey_1558099290144.jpg.jpg

You don’t meet Leonard Pelkey… but do.

Leonard Pelkey’s drama teacher gives an impression of Leonard Pelkey’s manner as young Leonard Pelkey had performed the role of the spirit Ariel in William Shakespeare’s “The Tempest.”

This is in a scene performed by Alan Kopischke in the play “The Absolute Brightness of Leonard Pelkey” being performed to June 9 at Third Avenue Playhouse.

The density level is high in the play. So is the acting finesse of Alan Kopischke as he presents nine characters in the probing creation by James Lecesne.

The play exists for theatricality – the situation and people being made up. The play also exists for meaning – appealing for humanity and understanding of those who live and breathe outside the mainstream.

Nutshell of the experience: A life is built so effects of that life gone can be felt.

The play is quite comical despite being about a hate crime. That’s quite a trick to manage, but it works in the characters that James Lecesne created and the expert way Alan Kopischke presents them.

Starting with a police detective in small town New Jersey with a “joisy” way – rough and commonplace – Alan Kopischke tells of Leonard Pelkey through people who knew him. Why detective Chuck DeSantis is telling this story is not clear. He just is.

Chuck DeSantis flashes back 10 years to when Leonard Pelkey went missing at age 14.

Leonard Pelkey is no average teen. His vocabulary and knowing ways around people are well beyond his years. This we learn as people who are impressed by him tell why he is so special – has an absolute brightness.

Alan Kopischke becomes the varied characters through quick-switch changes in voice and manner, assisted by lighting and sometimes music or sound effects.

The array is colorful and quirky. James Lecesne quickly gets to kernels of personality in often-droll ways. It could be a look, a gesture, a tone, a line, a word. Sometimes a little says a lot. That includes James Lecesne’s gift for imagery, like this: A woman arrived “smelling like a thick fashion magazine.”

The play and Alan Kopischke reach points of intensity through characters. Chuck DeSantis gets riled when he realizes Leonard Pelkey met abuse every day for being gay – quite openly gay with flamboyance such as multicolored platform shoes of his making. A teenage guy is driven to play a violent video game, the maddened action consuming his body. A girl is enveloped in sheer fear, having discovered the clue to Leonard Pelkey’s disappearance while in the presence of the culprit.

The telling of the tale involves an acting showcase, and Alan Kopischke has the professional toolbox for it. Director Robert Boles knows how to help Alan Kopischke take the tools out and polish them before cranking on all the nuts and bolts that hold this piece together.

Rich irony arrives early in this production. Chuck DeSantis has quoted a phrase from William Shakespeare’s “Julius Caesar,” surprising himself. “I didn’t know spit (sic) from Sherlock about Shakespeare” until having met the drama teacher. In real life, Alan Kopischke directed a University of Wisconsin-Green Bay production of “Julius Caesar” (the presentation being distinctive for its use of females in the leading characters) this month in a run up to his performance of “The Absolute Brightness of Leonard Pelkey.” Kopischke does know spit about Shakespeare.

Shakespeare has a recurring presence in James Lecesne’s play. Chuck DeSantis quotes Shakespeare from “Hamlet” at the end: “This above all: to thine own self be true. And it must follow, as the night the day, Thou canst not then be false to any man.”

The quote echoes what someone earlier said of Leonard Pelkey: “He said if he stopped being himself, then the terrorists would win.”

The play is about being gay in America and trying to be free in being gay.

On opening night Thursday, Alan Kopischke’s performance was followed by a standing ovation.

***

Creative: Playwright – James Lecesne; director Robert Boles; production manager – James Balistreri; set and lighting design – James Valcq; master carpenter – Ed DiMaio

Cast:

Chuck DeSantis (police detective) – Alan Kopischke

Marty Branahan (cop’s colleague) – Alan Kopischke

Ellen Hertle (guardian) – Alan Kopischke

Phoebe Hertel (guardian’s daughter) – Alan Kopischke

Buddy Howard (drama teacher) – Alan Kopischke

Gloria Salzano (mob guy’s wife) – Alan Kopischke

Marion Tochterman (beauty shop patron) – Alan Kopischke

Otto Beckerman (clock store owner) – Alan Kopischke

Travis Lembeck (youth) – Alan Kopischke

Running time: One hour, 15 minutes

Remaining performances: To June 9: 7:30 p.m. Thursdays to Saturdays, plus Wednesdays May 29, June 5; 2 p.m. Sundays

Info: thirdavenueplayhouse.com

***

RELATED: Talkbacks follow performances of May 26, June 2 and 9.

NEXT: “The Dig” by Marie Kohler, June 27-July 20.

THE VENUE: The 84-seat Studio Theatre is located in Third Avenue Playhouse, 239 N. Third Ave., in downtown Sturgeon Bay. The space is tucked into the corner off the main theater of the playhouse. Entry is along a long hallway off the playhouse’s lobby. To the left on the hallway wall is a growing display of photos of past productions. Studio Theatre is a black-box theater; the walls, sloped floor and support beams are black. The permanent fold-down theater seats are of red fabric seats on red metal, wooden arms and curved wood backs with metal edging. The focus is the stage, which is rectangular and has no curtain. With the closeness of the audience to the stage, the aura is the audience is part of what is transpiring in the play. Co-artistic directors James Valcq and Robert Boles have operated the playhouse since 2011. The origins of Third Avenue Playhouse date to 1999. The playhouse previously was a movie theater, the Donna.

Contact me at warren.gerds@wearegreenbay.com. Watch for my on-air Critic at Large editions on WFRV-TV at 6:20 a.m. Sundays. My seven books are available in Green Bay at Neville Public Museum and Bosse’s.

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