Sunday, July 20, 2014

Murder Drama In A Hot Place

Off The Wall Theatre offers a tense take on "Rope"

By Russ Bickerstaff
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Physical comfort in summer theater can be a rather tricky thing to negotiate. I’d recently mentioned being physically uncomfortable at a show in a review. That show was in a mosquito-infested barn. It was hot. It was uncomfortable. It was Animal Farm. This past Friday night I was at a show at the Off the Wall Theatre that was more physically uncomfortable than a mosquito-infested barn. It’s hot. It’s stuffy. It’s Rope by Patrick Hamilton.

I liked being uncomfortable at Animal Farm with the Quasimondo. The physical discomfort lent itself quite well to the overall feeling of discontent resonating throughout the drama. The hot stuffiness of the Off the Wall Theatre lends little to the experience of seeing its production of Rope. This is a pity as it really is a very good production. There’s a great amount of tension. There are some particularly interesting characters who actors bring to the stage quite well. Clever performances all. All of the actors are wearing full costume for a formal gathering of reasonably well people on the far end of last century. I hate to be distracted wondering how uncomfortable the actors must be in the heat and stuffiness and under the lights.

Physical discomfort aside, this really is a remarkable show. It’s the late 1920s. Jeremy C. Welter plays the Jeremy C. Welter character. He’s a killer. He’s a man who wants to kill another man just to show that he can. And he does. With rope. Welter summons the usual sort of seediness that he brings to a villain. Welter has a stylish kind of anger as a villain that has served him well over the years. This particular villain has interesting contrasting shades in the emotional background in the background. On the one hand, he’s very sophisticated and educated and sinister. On the other hand he’s also a black hole of pathetic neediness. It reminds me of what William S. Burroughs said about evil...the face of evil always being the face of need.

Playing accomplice to the murder is a much less confident man played by Mark Neufang. Over the course of the drama, he gets more and more intoxicated. This could have been used as a kind of comic relief, but in such a bleak drama, it looks a lot more like it does in the world beyond stage and screen: heartbreakingly revolting. Neufang does is positively heroic in giving himself to the irresistible vortex of oblivion that his character is riding. This has got to be one of the weakest emotional characters in 20th century theater and Neufang is openly embracing that weakness. It’s a subtly fearless performance.

Max Williamson and Alyssa Harold are perfectly charming as a couple of guests who have been invited to a party with the two murderers. Snacks are served on a trunk containing the remains of the man they’ve killed. The guests at the party are quite unaware that they are in the presence of a corpse. It’s a cleverly morbid premise that would have been a lot more fun with decent air conditioning.

Harold and Williamson were perfectly charming. Neufang and Welter delivered a dynamic that was fascinating to watch. There was only performance that really made me forget about the heat, though and that was Randall T. Anderson as author Rupert Cadell. Hamilton has written Cadell to appear to be quite weak and irritable while secretly being quite compassionate and cunning. One gets the impression that he prefers to play the role of the grumpy old fossil because it puts others at a disadvantage. They don’t know what he’s really like. This can be a very difficult thing to get across as an actor. Play the character too far in any one direction and he comes across muddled and inconsistent. Anderson not only has the precision of the role down perfectly, he’s capable of drawing the attention of an audience without interrupting the natural flow of the action. This is a very, very sharp performance for Anderson, who will also be appearing in a production of Dial M for Murder at the Brumder Mansion this coming August. Anderson is in excellent form here. It will be interesting to see Anderson cross over into another murder drama in a different place next month.

Off the Wall Theatre’s production of Rope runs through July 27 at Off the Wall’s space on 127 E. Wells St For more information, visit Off the Wall online.

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