|Trevor Jackson (Brandon) and Michael Tuefel (Rupert). Photo by Casey Campbell.|
By Tina Arth
Bag & Baggage’s October offering is definitely in the spirit of Halloween – a macabre murder-mystery-comedy that keeps the audience laughing at absurdly stereotypical caricatures. However, playwright Patrick Hamilton’s 1929 work manages, in the end, to sneak in a dose of real character development and a message about human values transcending the nihilism of its time. Guest director Rusty Tennant has imported a sparkling cast of Bag & Baggage newcomers to Hillsboro for this quirkily inverted whodunit – the question is never “who?” or even “why?” but rather “will they get caught?”
Ignoring the obvious complication of a body in a chest, Rope plays out at first quite like a traditional drawing room comedy. Two exceptionally callow and bored Oxford students, the dominant Wyndham Brandon and weaker Charles Granillo, have expressed their pseudo-Nietzschean intellectual superiority by committing a motiveless crime (the murder of the innocent Ronald), then inviting a few friends over for dinner. The dining room table is covered with books, so the food is set out buffet-style on the chest in the drawing room. The guests include Kenneth Raglan, a particularly silly fellow student, and Leila Arden, his apparently equally silly female counterpart – voluptuous, flirtatious, and very eager to fit in with the sophisticated and well-educated group. Through some patently expository initial dialogue, we learn that another two guests are Sir Johnstone and Mrs. Debenham, the father and aunt of the luckless, chest-bound Ronald. The final guest, Rupert Cadell, is a very, very clever poet whose World War I experiences have left him utterly cynical and totally disaffected from contemporary mores. Leila jokingly raises the possibility that there could be a body in the chest, then pursues her whimsical notion with the persistence of a bulldog – but to no avail. Rupert, having spotted an unexpected music hall ticket in Granillo’s vest, deduces that Leila has inadvertently hit on the truth, and the play then revolves around the possibility that Rupert might expose the murder and, if so, how he might react to it.
In the first act, each role is played with such broad enthusiasm that we get little sense of actual character (except for a clear sense of the lack of character of Brandon and Granillo). Raglan (Joel Patrick Durham) is an absolute ninny, and Durham’s nearly hysterical tittering makes it abundantly clear that the murderers are intellectually superior to at least some of their guests. Signe Larsen (Leila), while considerably less educated, shows some signs of grey matter – but her incessant prancing, dancing, and over-the-top attraction to Kenneth shows that she is no candidate for Mensa. In Act II the real tension between the handsome, but chillingly sociopathic Brandon (Trevor Jackson) and the foppish Rupert (Michael Tuefel) emerges. Tuefel’s wonderfully effete delivery of a monologue equating warfare with murder and dismissing each of the Ten Commandments sets him up as sympathetic to the boys – but Tuefel gradually displays hints of a deeper character buried beneath the façade.
Rope is one of those plays that, like Rupert Cadell, seems at first to be merely clever and funny (and it is extremely funny!) but turns out, on introspection, to be hiding a serious and thought-provoking side that more than justifies the audience’s attendance and attention.
Bag and Baggage’s production of Rope runs through Sunday, November 1 at Hillsboro’s Venetian Theatre, with performances at 7:30 Thursday – Saturday and 2:00 pm Sunday matinees.