First, I’d like to do something I almost never do and start this review with a standing ovation. Hooray for Germantown Community Theatre. Hooray for being brave and doing things differently during the holidays when nobody ever does anything especially brave or very different. While other playhouses pull out beloved Christmas classics and reel in customers who attend theatrical performances somewhere between once a year and once a lifetime, it makes good sense for a clever company to cash in on regulars looking to escape all the Bah Humbugs and God bless us every ones.
There’s a problem though, and it may have been reflected in Sunday afternoon’s uncomfortably small matinee audience. From its violent beginning through a long, somber curtain call (set to the loping tune of Alfred Hitchcock’s TV theme), Germantown’s Rope never feels like a gift of any kind.
A question Rope's characters are asking themselves: "How does it feel...
Rope’s a funny fish to begin with. Modern audiences may be familiar with the show by way of Hitchcock’s 1948 film starring Jimmy Stewart as a morally ambiguous college professor coming to terms with a pair of decadent students who’ve misunderstood Nietzsche and done something awful. It’s based on Patrick Hamilton’s chatty, 1929 play, which tells the same basic story, but with a few substantial differences bringing it even more in line with the grossly indecent works of Oscar Wilde. Set in the period of original production, and loosely based on the Leopold and Loeb murder case, Rope was Hamilton’s portrait of a dangerous and narcissistic class, happy to make games out of sex and murder. It also functions an overdetermined object lesson — a kind of dialogue between Wilde and Nietzsche built to address common misunderstandings about nihilism. Think of it as a gay-ish American Psycho set in post WWI Britain with an au current ideology standing in for watermarked business cards. It's also, fundamentally, a ham-handed exercise in suspense. Still, there’s real potential for a bold company of artists ready to wallow in Rope’s sick banalities (“Rather!”) and indecent desublimations (“Rather!”).
In a nutshell, Chase Ring’s production for GCT is short on color and long on the literal. Ring’s an inventive actor with a large personality, but neither quality seems to have followed him into the director’s chair.
When you do daring (like serve up gruesome for Christmas?) it’s an opportunity to create audience sampling. Just like the bigger playhouses leveraging their technological advantages, it’s a real chance to make lasting memories. In this case it might have been fun to swing for the design fences and create a dynamic space that frames the production instead of entombing it in a dollhouse. Something touched by elements of futurism, surrealism or dada — period-appropriate European art movements fancied by brats of all kinds. Something to elevate the middling material and leave a mark. But what stands out most in this production (costumes excepted), is a pronounced absence of style.
Every character in Rope has some mental picture of his/herself as an iconoclast, living bigly and in ways the typical Alf, Bert, or Bill couldn't understand. They're the butt of The Aristocrats joke, and the intellectual elite we’ve all been warned about — SCARY! But also a hoot! One's just a little more alive than all the rest right now. Another’s deader.
For his cast, Ring has brought together an able mix of seasoned veterans and fresh faces. There are a lot of good actors on stage, they’re just never lit very well, or given much to do besides talk, and talk, and talk (and talk, and talk). The lust for a life less ordinary that drives this chiller, is largely desexualzed, and reduced to something considerably less magnetic than it might be.
James Dale Green holds his own as Rupert Cadell, an irascible, hard drinking poet shaped by the original war to end all wars. But for a man full of drinks and dangerous ideas, he’s never allowed to be more than a scamp. Nor is anybody else, regardless of who they may not have killed, or why.
Joe Prestigiacomo, Ryan Spearman, Kristen Vandervorst, Whitney Bogus, Ty Hoskins, Louise Levin, and Beverly Morlang round out an ensemble more talented than tight.
Ironically Patrick Hamilton, named the condition GCT’s Rope suffers most — “Unchange.” Although Hamilton, achieved fame and fortune writing popular thrillers, it was never enough for the well-heeled Marxist. He longed to be taken seriously, by which I mean he wanted to create meaningful work for which there was no apparent market. So, in the late 1930’s, as fascism spread, war loomed, and global economies faltered, he penned a satirical, surrealist novel about the British caste system. The badly reviewed work of dystopian fiction was called Impromptu in Moribundia and told the story of a perfect world populated by perfect stereotypes, where perfect order is kept by “Little Men” of business who wear bowlers and become suspicious of the novel’s foreign narrator when he doesn’t take his hat off during the national anthem. Moribundia is a place where transition is possible only in the absence of change — “Unchange.” Absent a lively concept, or opportunity to experience finely focused performances, there’s just no compelling reason to revive an artifact like Rope or believe an ordinary season offering can compete with something as big as Christmas.
Rope’s not bad but, as Hitchcock once noted, the best films are made from mediocre source material. I love the idea. And believe there’s a market for something different this time of year, as long as that thing's also special in some way. In a giving season lackluster material and an all around lack of inspiration seems downright miserly.