Tied Up In Rope
I recently re-watched the miniseries of Brideshead Revisited on PBS, and it occurred to me while I was watching it that British dramas seem to get their kicks from featuring ruined young dreamers. The kind that lure you in with their emotional disaffection and doomed romances.
The compelling characters are hard to follow, and (as I remember it) make for grim pop quizzes in English class, because they’re always suffocated in a fog of ornate (read: tedious) language. You roll over every word about the Persian drapes and antique silver, but still, somehow, at the end, you’re haunted by a creepy satisfaction at having just read something dirty. You must shower immediately and cut off ties with your family.
Though I am still speaking with my relatives, the Queen City Theatre’s production of Rope, playing at the Duke Energy Theater through September 4th, reminded me of that feeling.
English playwright Patrick Hamilton’s 1929 Rope was one of his first (and few) theatrical successes, followed nearly a decade later by Gas Light. Alfred Hitchcock gave the parlor thriller its infamy with a movie version in 1948. Hamilton cursed Hitchcock for supposedly ignoring his input and misrepresenting the play—Hitchcock himself called the play “an experiment that didn’t work out.” But, of course, the royalties Hamilton received from the film’s success kept the cranky playwright in the public eye—and spending plenty of money in the public houses—until his cirrhosis-induced death in 1962.
Unlike the unspoken, fishy suggestions of Brideshead, or stylistically similarstories, you’ll never have a moment’s doubt as to what’s really going on in Rope. Something about the near-nude, homoerotic bondage session at the opening of the play that tips you off.
Rope follows two dapper Oxford students, Charles Granillo and Wyndham Brandon. They’re “roommates.” And, it turns out, partners in crime. The play begins just after the two have picked up an old friend, Ronald, at an underground gentleman’s club, invited him back to their place for who-knows-what, strangled him, and hidden his corpse in a living room chest. Brandon, not satisfied with his machinations for the day, announces to Charles that he has invited Ronald’s father, fiancé, and three other close friends to dinner at their house. At which points he sets the watercress sandwiches (on antique silver, of course) on top of the coffin-chest.
Much of what gives Rope its thrill is pure Victorian convention: homoerotic tensions that take up all the air in the room, terrible deeds unspoken, and the roundabout language that can feel (and, yes, I understand it’s set in 1933) old-fashioned.
While the sultry opening scene adds kindling to characters’ smoldering interactions, you’ll feel the spark more at some points more than others. The sometimes exhausting, hypothetical discussions on the “privilege of murder" for the "intellectually superior” are made more intriguing by a few, choice performances.
The ringleader of the twisted dinner party, Brandon, is played by Berry Newkirk, who delivers each smirk, swagger, and slight of tongue with airtight control; his performance anchors the play in its rightful, sinister mood.
Brandon’s foil is Rupert Cadell, a fellow Oxfordman whose psychotic grin and relentless pursuit to discover the truth behind the party’s premise gives a shrill, uncomfortable voice to the other characters’ unspoken notions. In this role, his first with Queen City Theatre, Austin Vaccaro makes a grand entrance. His stage energy effortlessly glides from the feigned ignorance that mocks Brandon, to the terrifying suspicions he shares with the audience with only a momentary gesture.
Perhaps the most effective player in the production is the playhouse itself, the Duke Energy Theatre; the small (dare we say boxy?) space traps the audience in with the ghastly cat-and-mouse game taking place on stage.
Just like the mini-series of Brideshead, this play may, at times, demand more interest from you than you might feel willing to give, but with its front-and-center demon—that ominous chest—looming over the play’s action, Rope will tie you to your seat.