BWW Review: ROPE is Riveting at the SHAW FESTIVAL
The Shaw Festival has a great history of producing murder mysteries and this season we are lucky to have Patrick Hamilton's play "ROPE." Probably more well known as the 1948 Alfred Hitchcock movie starring Jimmy Stewart, ROPE had it's start in 1929 on the British stage. It's twist lies in the fact that it is not a "whodunnit," but a "can they get away with it." Hamilton's knack for mystery can also be seen in his other famous thriller, GASLIGHT. From start to finish, this production of ROPE is a riveting hit.
Two collegiates enter their flat in darkness, but we get a glimpse of the dead body they are carrying. After they deposit the corpse in an oversized chest in the center of the living room and lock it with a padlock, we learn of their adventure. Charles Granillo (played by Travis Seetoo) and Wyndham Brandon (played by Kelly Wong) have murdered their school mate, mostly for the sheer thrill of the kill, stored his body and invited a group of friends and the dead lad's father over for a small party. The decide not to serve the meal on a table, but rather atop the aforementioned chest. One sees why Hitchcock found this fascinatingly macabre tale a perfect project for the silver screen. The pathology of these two psychopaths and their underlying homosexual relationship could be the stuff of a full semester's course in Abnormal Psychology.
Mr. Seetoo embodies the nervous young man who seems less certain of the morose act of murder than his partner. Seetoo is jittery, prone to spilling and dropping things, and all together ill at ease. Meanwhile Mr. Wong struts with self confidence and a wicked glee as her recaps the events of the murder prior to the start of the party. The two men play perfectly off of each other's strengths and weaknesses, only grazing at the suggestion of their more intimate relationship. The casting is made up of some of the festival's best. Peter Millard is Sir Johnstone Kentley, the father of the deceased, who is tricked into attending the evening with the ruse of acquiring some rare old books. Patty Jamieson is his dim witted sister Mrs. Debenham, who can elicit a laugh with a paucity of lines to deliver.
The fellow college gang includes Kyle Golemba as Kenneth Raglan, the effete dandy who comes over formally dressed and soon bonds with Leila Arden (played by Alexis Gordon). Ms. Gordon is the happy go lucky type and stirs the pot as the topic of murder creeps into the evening's conversation. She grows increasingly uncomfortable as proceedings turn darker and darker.
Michael Therriault is Rupert Cadell, the limping poet whose dark nature and alcoholic tendencies instigate the eventual downfall of young men's game. Therriault does a fine job anchoring the production and slowly chips away at the young men's plot, as clues are slowly exposed. A game of cat and mouse ensues as the young Mr. Brandon teases Rupert with the thought of opening the chest. The tension builds slowly until the audience is on the edge of it's seat wondering if Brandon and Granillo can get away with their sick scheme.
While the author maintains that his story was original, it was no doubt heavily influenced by one of the crimes of the century, the trial of Leopold and Loeb. In 1924 these two young well to do men from the University of Chicago murdered a 14 year old boy and stood trial, defended by the famous Clarence Darrow. Hamilton's play explores the concept of murder as told from multiple points of view, ranging from military killing to random acts of violence. The privileged nature of Granillo and Brandon, complete with a house keeper and a well stock bar, do nothing to defend their callow disregard for human life. Yet, one can't help but wonder if the two can indeed pull of this crime.
Kudos to designer Joann Yu. What at first glance looks like your basic English flat morphs into a room of dissolving walls as Yu has employed scrims painted as those walls that can mysteriously dissolve to show what is playing out behind them. Lighting by Louise Guinand perfectly assists this stage trick to create eerie playing spaces.
Stage director Jani Lauzon paces the evening perfectly, ensuring an edginess that is palpable among the cast, and ultimately the audience. The dark surroundings coupled with a dramatic thunder storm and some evocative original music by John Gzowski flesh out the foreboding mood. The pervading effects of alcohol allow Granillo to lower his guard, and Brandon's cockiness leads to the gripping denouement.
ROPE plays at the Royal George Theatre of the Shaw Festival in Niagara-on-the Lake through October 12, 2019. Contact shawfest.com for more information.