Gay-themed erotic thrillers are rare enough in 2014, so audiences in 1929 must have been shocked at the premiere run of Patrick Hamilton’s play Rope, about two college-age male lovers who murder a fellow student in an attempt to commit the perfect crime.
Today, unfettered by the sensibilities and censors of 1929, productions of Rope can overtly present the homoerotic elements implicit in the script and delve into the deeper questions the play asks about human nature, says Dale Gutzman, who’s directing the play at Off the Wall Theatre. Fans of Alfred Hitchcock’s tame 1948 film version of Rope starring James Stewart will see a startlingly different interpretation of the work.
As originally written, Rope opens in darkness, with its two main characters Brandon (Jeremy C. Welter) and Granillo (Mark Neufang) wrestling the body of the young man they’ve just killed into a large trunk. Only moments later, they’re hosting the dead man’s family and friends for a dinner party, serving them from a buffet placed on top of that trunk.
The plot is said to have been inspired by the most sensational crime of the 1920s — the thrill killing of 14-year-old Bobby Franks by well-heeled University of Chicago students Nathan Leopold and Richard Loeb.
The play’s action centers on the meddling of Rupert Cadell (Randall Anderson), an injured World War I veteran who suspects Brandon and Granillo of the crime and attempts to pry the truth from them.
“It’s called Rope because the tension twists tighter and tighter and tighter as this party goes on,” Gutzman says. The plot slowly narrows down to a confrontation between Rupert and the two murderers.
Gutzman says his interpretation of the script explores the psychological nature of Brandon and Granillo’s relationship more than the text explicitly calls for, emphasizing the dominant and submissive nature of their dynamic.
The production marks the third time Gutzman has staged Rope, and the second time he’s presented it at Off the Wall. Between then and now, Gutzman says he’s learned how to better utilize the space for dramatic effect.
For this production, Gutzman makes his small theater even smaller, constructing a small drawing room for the set and then seating the audience only a foot or two away from all the action. “I want there to be a claustrophobia in the room,” he says, “a tightness.”
Minimal lighting that keeps the stage in shadows adds to the production’s intensity, Gutzman says.
But Gutzman was largely drawn to the script because it rises above the average thriller philosophically. Hamilton poses an existential question, Gutzman says: Why is this murder presented as so abhorrent when the slaughter of millions in World War I earned medals for the killers?
Rope opens at Milwaukee’s Off the Wall Theatre, 127 E. Wells St., on July 17 and runs through July 27. Performances are 7:30 p.m. on Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays and 4:30 p.m. on Sundays. Tickets are $25. Call 414-484-8874 or go to offthewalltheatre.com.