Review: Miller, Gunderman lead Lab Theater's heart-stopping thriller 'Extremities'

Tera Nicole Miller and Timothy Gunderman in 'Extremities.' Extremities' runs Nov. 2-18 at the Laboratory Theater of Florida. Tickets are $20. For more information or to purchase tickets, go online to laboratorytheaterflorida.com or call (239) 218-0481.

Stephanie Davis / Laboratory Theater of Florida

Tera Nicole Miller and Timothy Gunderman in "Extremities." Extremities" runs Nov. 2-18 at the Laboratory Theater of Florida. Tickets are $20. For more information or to purchase tickets, go online to laboratorytheaterflorida.com or call (239) 218-0481.

Video from YouTube

What: Dark drama about three women who turn the tables on a would-be rapist

When: 8 p.m. Nov. 2-17; 2 p.m. matinées on Sunday Nov. 11 & 18

Where: Kiwanis Hall, 1634 Woodford Avenue, downtown Fort Myers

Cost: $20

Information: 239-218-0481 or laboratorytheaterflorida.com

Something Else: Play is 90 minutes, no intermission; contains violent sexual content and adult language

On the Web: More theater news at The Stage Door blog

Consider Marjorie. She doesn't work. Wakes up late. Turns on the radio. Picks at breakfast leftovers. Waters the plants. Kills a wasp. I mean, kills it dead, then burns it with a cigarette. Marjorie hates wasps. Enter Raul. Raul is unpleasant. Things are not looking good for Marjorie.

Indeed, things aren't good for anyone in the Lab Theater's heart-pounding, thrill-inducing adrenaline ride of a show "Extremities."

First produced in 1980, William Mastrosimone's play asks one simple question: "What would you do?" What would you do when a strange man enters your home? What would you do when he attacks you? What would you do if you were able to turn the tables? Kill him? Call the cops? Does he deserve death or pity? Do you tell anyone?

What would you do?

The play asks this again and again. "Extremities" presents four characters locked in a vicious circle of doubt, fear and degenerate behavior that grows ever more primal.

What would you do? Do you believe the vixen who stole your boyfriend? She doesn't have a scratch. Do you believe the man bound and tied in the fireplace with bruises and chemical burns? His pitiable words sound so logical.

Who is right? Who is wrong? Who is the hunter? Who is the hunted? Who is the human? Who is the animal?

What would you do?

What would you do?

What would you do?

Stephanie Davis, making her directorial debut, slashes the emotional jugular hard and fast during the play's intense opening scene. Timothy Gunderman (Raul) and Tera Nicole Miller (Marjorie) throw everything they have - and more - into the terrifying sequence where Raul attacks Marjorie.

The moment defines the play. Davis figures, correctly, that she must launch the show with a startling few minutes of pure, breathless evil that leaves the audience with their heart in their throat, barely able to look away before. Only then, after the screams, the maniacal laughter and a deadly silence so still that traffic could be heard through the walls and across the parking lot could "Extremities" begin its debate.

Miller and Gunderman trained with longtime local actor and stage combat choreographer Greg Longenhagen to make their scene as realistic as possible. Gunderman, in a goatee, worn jeans, work boots, a ripped shirt and bandana, drips menace. As Raul gleefully cackles while holding a pillow over Marjorie's face, I worried more than once for the safety of the actress the violence felt so real, so visceral; the scene puts frost on every glass in the room.

Once Marjorie turns the tables, Raul sits shackled in the fireplace. What would you do?

Here, the play twists like the noose around Raul's neck. "Extremities" explores power. Marjorie has it. She likes it. She wants to punish Raul for hurting her. "Extremities" explores relationships. Once the roommates show up, Marjorie's increasing antagonism seems more and more out of place. "Extremities" explores humanity. Will Marjorie kill Raul - or let him die in the fireplace?

What would you do?

Davis opts for a single, taut 90-minute show; some versions break the action just after Marjorie screams a speech about "making her own law." I love the intense, throbbing tension Davis gives her show. Yet, I almost wish she could have found a way to build the action in a more measured fashion over the course of the evening. I feel like she takes the crowd on a wild, heady journey down a steep hill on a runaway bicycle - and we're going so fast we miss some of the subtext.

Mastrosimone introduces natural breaks with the arrival of each roommate, along with other events. Each should serve as a natural pause that could "reset" the play, allow the audience to reach the current dramatic plateau, then plow forward to a higher peak. What Davis elicits from her cast erupts off the stage in a titanic volcano of emotion; added momentum feels extraneous.

Davis asks Miller to shift from frolicking faun to feral lioness in just a few minutes. The actress snarls and complies - all but baring her teeth (and not to mention her soul) in the process. I wish Davis had pulled her back, just a bit, to allow the audience to see the anger develop, but Miller deserves plaudits for her gutsy, grinding, vicious performance.

The actress commands the stage, often with little more than a pout or a glare. Once Raul lies chained, the play's debate shifts to Marjorie - is she the animal? Miller plays the caged tigress well, playing with the Raul prey at one point, debating her roommates at another and smashing the table with a hammer at another. I jumped at this point - enough to knock my glasses off my face.

Is Marjorie crazy? In shock? Will she kill Raul? For all that the production needs to ease into these questions with a bit more skill, Miller forces audiences to keep guessing while swinging a hammer at anything that moves. A shimmering silver nightgown speaks to the spoiled princess within, while the dirty legs (Marjorie was digging Raul's grave) echo the play's true theme - none of us are entirely pure.

Gunderman turns in a second consecutive tour de force performance just days after closing the Lab Theater's "Othello." He often rehearsed "Extremities" in the afternoon or early evening before going on stage as Iago. Here, he does much of his work bound and blind-folded - and still threatens to make a would-be rapist both sympathetic and the center of attention.

The actor retains the magnificent, magnetic stage presence that served him so well in "Othello." Here, he and Davis allowed Raul to wander the thin line between insanity and normalcy. Audiences know the truth - Raul is evil - but the roommates, who missed the crucial few minutes at the beginning of the play, could have reasonable doubt as to his intentions.

Gunderman, shoved into a fireplace at the back of the stage, does all this with his voice. Piteous wails, maniacal laughs and asylum-style rantings allow him to play the characters against each other. Even a simple act of kindness, a bit of bread, becomes a weapon - a wedge - for him to drive them apart. Yet, in the end, Raul cannot hide his true nature.

Tiffany Allen Campbell, a longtime volunteer at Theatre Conspiracy, tackles her first major dramatic role here. Her social worker Patricia introduces levity into some of the evenings most fraught moments as the unflappable Allen tries to apply dime-store psychology to the deteriorating situation.

Campbell, who has stage managed and dealt with high-strung actors for years, delights in the part. Try to imagine though - a bloody man in the fireplace, one roommate crying on the couch and another swinging a hammer. And calm, placid Patricia sits sipping wine and saying "Let's identify the problem." Perfectly underplayed, and I love that Davis allowed the audience room to breathe - even laugh - during these tense scenes.

Newcomer Angel Duncan makes her Southwest Florida debut as mousy Terri. The role feels under-written, although Duncan gives the hippie character plenty of personality. She allows the fright and fear of both Marjorie's righteous anger and Raul's viciousness to war on her face; a trembling, shaking scene as Terri tries to read a magazine crackles with anticipation.

Jane Lane's set captures an eclectic, 1978 suburban New Jersey converted farmhouse feel. Funky paintings, eclectic furniture and cutesy charm oozes off the stage; the colorful set brings the shocking play into stronger focus. Ditto for Roger Tanksley's saturated, over-bright lights. The Lab Theater space has limits, but I do wish we could have seen an anticipatory glimpse of characters "arriving" through the window instead of having them just burst through the door.

"Extremities" will shock you. "Extremities" will make you think. "Extremities" will leave you breathless and rocked to the core with emotion. The play offers a vivid, shattering debate about womanhood, humanity and forces audiences to look deeply into their own beliefs.

What would you do?

Help is available. In Collier, call Project Help at (239) 262-7227. In Lee, call Abuse, Counseling & Treatment at (239) 939-3112.

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