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Jun. 16, 2019 | Sunday
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Shaw Festival review: Rope, a solid start to the season
Travis Seetoo, as Charles Granillo, and Kelly Wong, as Wyndham Brandon, in Rope. (David Cooper/Supplied)

REVIEW BY MIKE KEENAN, SPECIAL.

Judging by TV’s taste for mayhem, this is a society engrossed by murder and shrewd detectives who solve it — Morse, Poirot, Miss Marple, Columbo, Quincy (first to employ forensic science), and for the older demographic — Dick Tracy, Philip Marlowe and Sam Spade. Even William Shakespeare wrote tragedies that littered his stage at the end with lifeless bodies.

In recent years, fiction mutated into reality with a media frenzy featuring serial killer Bruce McArthur in Toronto’s gay community and — as chilling in Niagara, the demented duo of Paul Bernardo and Karla Homolka.

Last season, Shaw thrilled us with a premiere of The Hound of the Baskervilles, a murder mystery featuring veteran Ric Reid as Dr. Watson paired with skilled newcomer Damien Atkins as Sherlock Holmes. This season, artistic director Tim Carroll takes us to a darker place.

Homicide motives differ in fiction and non-fiction, but rarely is someone murdered because of intellectual arrogance. Patrick Hamilton’s 1929 psychological thriller, Rope, explores such a murder, masterminded by Oxford student Wyndham Brandon (Kelly Wong) and assisted by his lover, Charles Granillo (Travis Seetoo). As the play opens in darkness, they carry the inert body of strangled classmate Ronald Kentley and cram it into a trunk in their Mayfair flat in London.

Hamilton’s inspiration is the infamous case of Leopold and Loeb at the University of Chicago, who in 1924 kidnapped and murdered 14-year-old Bobby Frank to demonstrate their intellectual superiority, which they thought allowed them to commit a “perfect crime.” Wong and Seetoo invite college friends and Kentley’s father over for a party, and they act as perversely as Shakespeare’s Titus Andronicus, offering dinner on the top of the trunk that serves as a buffet. The play’s suspense literally hinges on whether they’ll be caught.

Director Jani Lauzon abandons an over-the-top-Trump-rally-type approach, and steers her cast toward a nuanced, incremental intensity that begins slowly but shapes into a frenetic finale: a battle between Wong, who hits the ball out of the sociopathic ballpark (he’s smug and at ease throughout), and understudy Mike Nadajewski, filling in for Michael Therriault as Rupert Cadell, the perfect foil as a cynical poet wounded in the First World War, and witness to death in its myriad, grotesque forms.

Nadajewski never missed a beat, displaying Shaw’s incredible acting depth. He plays Freud’s super-ego, the critical and moralizing role to Wong’s id, its libido the primary source of an instinctual force totally unresponsive to reality.

Other characters are solid yet not as significant — Seetoo unravels from the beginning, insisting on darkness and with snowballing uneasiness and drink, he makes a fatal mistake, which leads to the denouement. Alexis Gordon and Kyle Golemba are perfect as bland socialites; veteran Peter Millard is convincing as the victim’s father; Patty Jamieson and Élodie Gillett are spot on as vacuous socialite and common maid.

Lauzon’s collaboration with Joanna Yu (sets and costumes), Louise Guinand (lighting), John Gzowski (music and sound) firmly place us in the appropriate period and help foster the rising suspense amid lightning bolts and substantial rainfall, straight out of Julius Caesar.

Hamilton’s title, Rope, suggests binding, tying up even lynching; rope indicated as the murder weapon. In the enriching Shaw program notes, Bob Hetherington suggests that the title is derived from Nietzsche’s Thus Spake Zarathustra. The 1929 Broadway play was entitled Rope’s End, which indicates the limits of one’s resources, implied by Samantha Power’s disturbing A Problem from Hell: America and the Age of Genocide (2002).

Does this play have resonance now? Samantha Power would say yes. It’s easy to project Brandon’s microcosmic sociopathy into current state leaders who narcissistically watch missiles drop into the sea while 40 per cent of their population starves, and brutal oligarchs who either imprison or murder anyone who dissents.

Rope is a sure-fire money-maker for Carroll, whose stewardship and program innovation last year resulted in a Shaw profit of $537,000 as 251,321 patrons attended 755 performances.

* Rope by Patrick Hamilton, directed by Jani Lauzon, plays till Oct. 12 at the Royal George Theatre, 85 Queen St., Niagara-on-the-Lake. Shawfest.com, 905-468-2172 and 1-800-511-7429.

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