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The 2018 season for NCSU's TheatreFest opened on the last day of May with Ira Levin's Deathtrap, one of the best murder mysteries ever written for the stage. Levin sets up so many twists and turns in this play that, when it is properly staged, it cannot help but satisfy even the most jaded of mystery theatre patrons.
Levin has the main character describe his play quite succinctly in the very first words he utters, "Deathtrap: a one-set, five-character play, with six scenes, perfectly balanced; it ought to run for years." This is how playwright Sidney Bruhl (Wade Newhouse) describes a new play to his wife of 11 years, Myra (Lynda Clark). Unfortunately for this particular writer, the play is not his. Sydney Bruhl, author of the famed Gun Point, among others, has not been able to write anything resembling a mystery play in 18 years. He's gone dry. He and Myra discuss this fact in Scene I. The two have been living off her dwindling wealth for quite some time now, here in Westport, CT. The two share a sprawling, lush home where the front room has been turned into Sydney's study, warmly and lavishly furnished with antiques and many display cases of Sydney's collected medieval war memorabilia: knives, swords, axes, maces, and more of the usual like.
No, this play, as Sydney tells Myra, is the very first newly-minted work of a completely new writer, a student of Sydney's last playwriting seminar by the name of Clifford Anderson (Justin Brent Johnson). Cliff, having just last night finished his play, is decidedly proud of it – with good reason, according to Sydney – and has sent him the carbon copy so that he might be the very first person to read it; Cliff would love to have his reaction. Sydney, having just finished reading this new gem, is green with envy. He tells Myra that he would kill to have a brand new hit play such as this one. And he means it, literally. By the end of Scene I, he has called Cliff and asked him to come to the house so the two might discuss his play further.
Cliff, of course, jumps at the chance. In Scene II, he has arrived at Sydney's home, having been picked up at the station by Sydney himself; he has ridden the train from a nearby town.
As he has liberally hinted he would do, Sydney garrotes him, but, Cliff being a strong young buck and Sydney a much older man, the two struggle mightily before Cliff succumbs. Myra, who witnesses the whole thing, is nearly hysterical, but Sydney forces her to help him remove the body to the garden out back.
Between Scenes II and III, Sydney has buried Cliff in a flowerbed. He returns to the study in Scene III tired and dirty, but jubilant. It is possible that he has committed the perfect crime. Myra has been sitting alone in the study all the while Sydney has been at work, and now she confronts him. She tells him that, after a time has passed, to avoid suspicion, he must move out. She cannot accept that he would kill a stranger in order to steal his work and call it his own. But before Scene III, and thus Act I, ends, there is a major development, and it is one that nobody sees coming.
I have mentioned before that University Theatre, which sponsors TheatreFest, is famous for making sets that make you want to move in. This set is a spectacular example of such. There are beautiful overhead exposed beams, a stone fireplace, a huge writing desk, and sumptuous furniture. It is a fabulous set, one of which Jayme Mellema, a member of the Alpha Psi Omega National Theatre Honor Society, can be proud.
There are two more characters in this play, which only add to the several twists and turns this show makes before it closes. The first is Helga Ten Dorp (JoAnne Dickinson), a Dutch Psychic, who "sees" everything that's going on in the Bruhl household. The other is Porter Milgram (Danny Norris), who is Sidney's attorney and someone who has tried his hand at writing plays himself. All five cast members are TheatreFest veterans, and their collaboration in this performance was outstanding. Unless an audience member has seen Deathtrap before, there is very little chance that anyone will be able to predict the sharp angles and sudden divergences that this show makes. In every case, these characters are real, natural, extremely well-drawn, and beautifully portrayed.
As an introduction to TheatreFest 2018, you could not ask for a better selection than Deathtrap. This one is one for the books, and one that director and head of production John C. McIlwee should be proud to add to his long list of successes. McIlwee will step down as head of University Theatre the end of this month, and he will be sorely missed. But John intends to keep his hand in; he will return to direct, and design, The Royal Family for University Theatre next April.
TheatreFest 2018 continues all this month with this and two more shows, The 39 Steps, opening June 7, and the always-funny Nunsense, opening June 14. Deathtrap continues through Sunday, June 10. For more information, please see the sidebar.