Two sparring playwrights in a vintage thriller: Deathtrap opens the Teatro Live! season

Ian Leung, Geoffrey Simon Brown in Deathtrap, Teatro Live!. Photo by Ryan Parker Photography.

By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca

The twisty comedy thriller that opens the Teatro season on the Varscona stage Friday is a classic, Ira Levin’s vintage 1978 Broadway hit Deathtrap. 

But the production that launches the Teatro La Quindicina of old into its 40s, though, is all about announcing the new. There’s the streamlined new name and logo, Teatro Live!, with its own built-in exclamation mark! and foolproof spelling. There’s the stepping away from the summer- and Fringe-centric into a more conventional seasonal calendar for their shows, one that takes winter into account and leaves August out.  

And with this Teatro Live! revival of Deathtrap, a whole coterie of artists are making their debuts with the company, starting with director Nancy McAlear. Of her five member cast, four are Teatro newcomers. Ian Leung and Geoffrey Simon Brown (who are, incidentally, both playwrights themselves) star as the play’s two playwrights, the road-weary veteran and the bright up-and-comer, with Kristin Johnston as the former’s wife and Corben Kushneryk as Deathtrap’s lawyer character.

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The sole Teatro “veteran” in the cast, in the role of the next-door clairvoyant with the weird accent, is Gianna Vacirca, most recently seen this past season in her own Teatro debut as the title mystery woman in Evelyn Strange.

In itself a 44-year-old comedy thriller of Broadway provenance (by Levin, of Rosemary’s Baby fame) isn’t a new departure for a company whose mission in life is exploring and expanding the spectrum and reach of comedy. In addition to the plays of founder and resident playwright Stewart Lemoine, the Teatro production archive, after all, includes such vintage thriller offerings as Sleuth, Rope, The Bad Seed. 

With its two playwrights, its play(s)-within-a-play, and its intricate cross-hatching of revelations and reversals, Deathtrap is lethally resistant to commentary. Speaking of traps, everything, potentially, is a spoiler. But you find out pretty quick that Sydney Bruhl’s last Broadway hit was 18 years ago, followed by a series of flops. “Nothing recedes like success,” as he famously says of his flagging career. When Clifford, a bright young playwriting protegé shows up at Sydney’s isolated country house with the only copy of a script he’s written, a sure-fire hit called Deathtrap, Sydney’s extended “dry spell” might well be over. And the plot does what thriller plots do: it thickens.  

We caught up with Leung and Brown, the production’s Sydney and Clifford, to find out what it’s like to be playing wary playwrights — and multiple layers of deceptions and clues.

The pair arrive in their first Teatro production — specifically, in a bourgeois Connecticut country house full of (possibly) ornamental weapons — from very different theatrical locations.  For Leung it’s an arrival from a contemporary Ibsen sequel, Lucas Hnath’s A Doll’s House Part 2, in which he powerfully played the abandoned husband Torvald. Brown was half the cast of Even Gilchrist’s Re:Construct, a playful deconstruction of gender from the optic of being trans in a world of orthodoxies (it’s been picked up for the High Performance Rodeo in January). 

“So many challenges for an actor in this play,” says Leung of Deathtrap, “so many layers,” including the trickiness built into “the actor knowing much more than the character does … the problem of not knowing how much you know at every point.” He laughs. “It’s like that game where you make the little ball roll through a maze into a hole…. It’s called Deathtrap for a reason. Everyone in it is in a trap of some kind in their lives.”

Actor/playwright Brown is most associated with off-centre experimental theatre (and the innovative artist-run collective Major Matt Mason), witness such plays as Michael Mysterious, The Circle, and Night, a drive-by theatre experience which ran at twilight in Rundle Park in 2021. But he’s been in “scripted theatre-y shows” before now, as he says, though not recently. Brown is the author of a 23-actor adaptation of A Christmas Carol,  a hit at Theatre Calgary n 2019 and 2020. He’s even been in the ultimate murder mystery chestnut, Agatha Christie’s The Mousetrap at Vertigo Theatre in Calgary. 

“It feels … nice to be able trust the structure, to be able to lean on that,” Brown says of Deathtrap. “Maybe it’s where I am in my career, but I sympathize with my character wanting mentorship, trusting this older playwright. I just think how much I looked up to my mentors…. If they’d been menacing or duplicitous, I’d have been very vulnerable to that.” 

Actors are trained to make feelings and motivations expressive, available to the audience. Thrillers are all about the finesse of concealing, gauging how much and when to reveal — “how not to give away too much,” as Brown says. “It’s ‘what are you feeling?’ versus what you making someone else feel? And trying to be aware of both those things at the same time.”

Which sounds awfully complicated. But Leung thinks that the when and how much of clues and red herrings of Deathtrap are set up for actors in Levin’s script. “It’s a thriller where the characters play with each other as much as they play with the audience.”

Do they consider it a comedy? Like Leung, Brown calls it instead “a thriller with laughs, but first and foremost a thriller…. And it also pokes fun at the form and the fact it’s a play. It’s aware of what it’s doing and it kind of lets you in on the joke.”

Leung agrees. “There’s humour and wit mixed in….” He quotes one of the characters who analyzes the premium thriller form as “a juicy murder in At I, unexpected developments in Act II. Sound construction, good dialogue, laughs in the right places.” 

He’s having fun. “For me, it’s a new company; also I’ve never worked with anybody in this cast before. And they’re all wonderful to work with!” 

“How many laughs, how many gasps will go through the crowd?? wonders Brown. “I can’t say too much about it.” He laughs. “Just ‘I am in it. And it will be good’.” 

PREVIEW

Deathtrap

Theatre: Teatro Live!

Written by: Ira Levin

Directed by: Nancy McAlear

Starring: Ian Leung, Geoffrey Simon Brown, Kristin Johnston, Corben Kushneryk, Gianna Vacirca

Where: Varscona Theatre, 10329 83 Ave. 

Running: Friday through Dec. 4

Tickets: teatroq.com

 

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