Arrogance, deception, guilt and murder: Bag&Baggage’s ‘Rope’ is a tight, smart classic thriller
Years ago, as a young police reporter, I interviewed a man who murdered a neighbor with a hammer simply for the thrill of doing the crime.
He had no remorse.
In fact, he was surprised that the police, whom he deemed to be far beneath him intellectually, had actually solved the case and arrested him.
And that is what makes watching Trevor Jackson on stage so unnerving.
Jackson portrays Wyndham Brandon in Bag&Baggage’s thriller “Rope,” playing at the Venetian Theatre in Hillsboro.
He is despicable as the self-centered, narcissistic sociopath capable of taking a life with neither hesitation nor remorse. There is more truth to his portrayal than what was written in the script.
The Patrick Hamilton play is based, not too loosely, on the 1920s murder of a 14-year-old boy by Nathan Leopold Jr. and Richard Albert Loeb, two wealthy students at the University of Chicago, who killed the youngster, they said, to demonstrate their supposed intellectual superiority by committing a “perfect crime.”
Nathan Dunkin plays Charles Granillo, Brandon’s weak-willed housemate who is constantly on the verge of coming unhinged as the realization of what they have done comes into focus. Dunkin’s portrayal of Granillo is remarkable, and the audience can’t help but feel sorry for the character, swept along in a tide of violence that he was too weak to resist.
But the most prominent member of the cast is not a person at all. It’s a wood chest that sits center stage. In the epitome of arrogance, the murderers and their unknowing dinner guests dine on expensive food set out on top of the impromptu coffin while beneath the cover rests the remains of the young victim. The murderers have gone so far as to invite the victim’s father and his aunt to the affair, and fake concern when the father receives a phone call letting him know that his son has failed to return home that evening.
All the guests are fully absorbed with their own self-importance, with the exception of poet Rupert Cadell, who begins to suspect there is something strange beneath the surface of the gathering. Strongly portrayed by Michael Tuefel, Cadell and Brandon parry through the second act as they argue over the differences between individual murders and the casualties of war and how the law and justice often seem to have only a casual relationship. The verbal fisticuffs end with Cadell being certain what lies beneath the cover of the chest.
Strengths: With a small cast and intense story line, there’s no room for a weak performer. Director Rusty Tennant filled the stage with talent that runs deep. There’s almost comic sexual attraction between Joel Patrick Durham and Signe Larsen as they play self-centered Kenneth Raglan and Leila Arden. Victoria Blake is delightful as Mrs. Debenham, who becomes more and more tipsy as the night wears on. While Phillip Rudolph makes a fine book collector, his strongest moment as Sir Johnstone is when he gets a call from his wife, concerned about their missing son.
Best line: Cadell warning the guests not to confuse what goes on in the courts of the Old Bailey with justice.
Nice touch: In Tennant’s director’s notes he explains that he is a designer as well as a director, so the play’s setting is critical to his productions. His craft and eye for detail is showcased on the Bag&Baggage stage, where the tightly packed set works to focus the audience’s eye on the wood chest.
Take away: In a world becoming numb to acts of violence fueled by individuals bent on proving their value and superiority by killing others, “Rope” is a reminder that for some segments of the population, about the only thing that has changed over the years is the choice of weapon.