The art of murder

“I’ve stayed away from the real story, because I didn’t want it to taint my view of the play,” admits Charles Mills, director of Haywood Arts Repertory Theatre’s production of Rope.

A director who doesn’t want to know too much about the events that inspired his current project? Sounds strange.

Then again, Rope is full of bizarre twists. That’s how a suspense thriller works.

“I’ve been bugging Steve [Lloyd, executive director of HART] about Rope for some time,” Mills reveals. “We don’t usually do this kind of darker story.”

The motive

A lot about Rope departs from HART’s usual summer fare of musicals, historical dramas and classic comedies.

The play is based on the 1924 trial of two 19-year-old University of Chicago students, Nathan Leopold and Richard Loeb. These highly intelligent upper-class teens planned and carried out what they considered the perfect murder: Their victim, a 14-year-old neighbor, was chosen at random, killed and deposited in a culvert — and then the perpetrators attempted to collect a ransom from the victim’s family.

Their plan unravels when Richard’s eyeglasses are discovered near the body. However, in an unprecedented trial, famed attorney Clarence Darrow manages to get the boys off with life in prison instead of the then-typical hanging sentence.

What’s intriguing about the story isn’t that the boys were caught, or even that they believed they wouldn’t be caught — it’s why they thought they were invincible.

Richard and Nathan, both found sane by a team of experts, were discovered to believe in Nietzsche’s superman theory — the idea that certain individuals are above the laws and morals of society. (“Murder is an art,” Brandon, the show’s Richard Loeb character, asserts. “The privilege to commit it should be reserved for … men who are of such intellectual superiority that they’re above the common morals of right and wrong.”)

Neither Richard or Nathan ever showed any signs of remorse for the crime — but they did maintain a fierce allegiance to one another.

The case moved playwright Patrick Hamilton to pen the Broadway production of Rope in 1929. In Hamilton’s creation, fact gives way to fiction, but Richard and Nathan serve as prototypes for the main characters — two uncommonly bright young men who decide to commit murder for the thrill alone. In 1947, Arthur Laurents updated the play, which became Hitchcock’s film of the same name.

The making of a villain

When Mills decided to bring the play to HART’s stage, he searched for Hamilton’s original script, now public domain. When he couldn’t get his hands on that version, he updated Laurents’ work, setting the events in the present. Mills’ adaptation carries on the themes of madness, motive and manipulation, as well as the undercurrent of homosexuality barely explored in previous versions.

“The homosexual element is an important aspect,” Mills asserts. “We’ve kept that in. In the ’50s version, it’s hinted at.

“Some people in the gay community were up in arms because this could say homosexuality equals deviance,” he continues. “But I think it’s kind of fascinating how this veers away from the stereotypical ‘queen’ character.”

Of that aspect of his performance, Graham Livengood, who plays Brandon, maintains, “I have to get used to the homo-erotic touching thing. I’m not good at it. But, like with any character, you have to develop a relationship with the other people on stage.”

Michael Ackerman, who plays Phillip, the Nathan Leopold character, insists, “It’s like any relationship — not really different than with a guy and a girl.” Phillip is the repressed one, pushed around and sometimes bullied by dominant Brandon.

“We changed [the play] so it would fit better in this day and age,” Ackerman explains. “There are a couple hints to their real relationship. I don’t know if we’ll end there, or if we’ll go farther.”

The nature of the bond between the partners-in-crime accentuates the risk HART is taking with Rope.

“We have a small studio space where we do our edgier stuff in the winter,” Mills explains. “But even in there, we haven’t tried anything this edgy.

“Many of our patrons are older. Many come up from Florida for the summer — they like comedies.”

“We’ve done some edgier stuff,” offers Livengood. “Parade, even though it’s a musical, had some dark and scary undertones. But Rope shows that we’re not going to do the typical thing in this theater. We’re not going to bow at the throne of Rodgers and Hammerstein.”

Neither, it seems, will they bow out of safe fare altogether: Even as Livengood makes this statement, rehearsal for The King and I is underway in HART’s back studio.

“I’m curious to see what kind of reaction we’ll get [with Rope],” muses Mills — who’s quick to point out that auditions were well-attended, and that the community has, so far, responded enthusiastically.

Livengood says he’s up to the challenge of playing a villain. “Brandon,” the actor believes, “is not so much evil as manipulative. He manipulates the people around him to his own ends. … He’s a pretentious jerk.

“For some reason,” Livengood adds with a laugh, “I get typecast as the evil character. Perhaps it’s because I have a thick brow ridge.”

Scene of the crime

Part of the show’s intensity comes from the way it’s staged. As Lloyd explains, “[Hitchcock’s] Rope was filmed with one camera, and in such a way as to appear to be a seamless, uncut stream, or rope, of film.”

“I’m a big Hitchcock fan,” Mills reveals. “In the movie, it all pretty much plays out in one room, and I was like, yeah.” He recreated that effect by running HART’s show in real time: The play unfolds in one act, with no scenery changes or intermission.

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About Alli Marshall
Alli Marshall is the arts section editor at Mountain Xpress. She's lived in Asheville for more than 20 years and loves live music, visual art, fiction and friendly dogs. Alli is the winner of the 2016 Thomas Wolfe Fiction Prize and the author of the novel "How to Talk to Rockstars," published by Logosophia Books. Follow me @alli_marshall

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