Chamber’s “Deathtrap” a skillfull mystery told with twists and turns

Bill Watson and Di’Monte Henning star in “Deathtrap.”

If you are of a certain age, or a fan of film and television mysteries, then you most likely recall, with some chill, the work of the great Alfred Hitchcock.

The maker of films and television shows, he was such a master of the genre of mystery and suspense, that he was knighted and left a body of work that is still seen today, “Dial M for Murder,” “North by Northwest,” “The Birds” and “Psycho.”

Michael Cotey, the adept young director from Milwaukee, channels the master in his mounting of “Deathtrap” at Milwaukee Chamber Theatre, the unofficial opening production of the Milwaukee theater season.

Mr. Hitchcock developed the mastery of special effect to move a story from the plain to the perfect – the background of a sound that signals the growing pace of suspense, the manipulation of light to herald a moment of horror, the breath-taking surprise of the unexpected.

Mr. Cotey, aided and abetted by a bevy of designers and a corps of smart actors, delivers all of Mr. Hitchcock without ever sacrificing the honesty in Ira Levin play in favor of any gimmick.

“Deathtrap” is a play within a play within a play and so on.

Sydney (Bill Watson) is an aging playwright, once a success but now an artist without a thought in his head.  No play, no ideas He and his wife Myra (Susan Spencer) are discussing a play that has been sent to him by a former student, Clifford (Di’Monte Henning), a play that has box office success written all over it.

The question before them – in jest or not – is whether it would be possible to act out a mystery by killing Clifford and making the play his own, restoring Sydney’s  fame and their fortune, both of which have taken a precipitous fall.

Along the way the mystery is joined by a Helga (Mary Kababik) a neighbor who is also a self-professed psychic and Porter (David Sapiro) Sydney’s attorney/agent.

There is not enough bribery money in the world to make me divulge the twists and turns of this production. Let it suffice to say that surprise and shock are waiting to assault the lucky members of the audience.

But even without knowing what is going to happen, we can easily discuss the skills of the artists who make it happen. You will note a strong connection to both Northwestern University where Mr. Cotey is finishing his MFA and UWM where he did his undergraduate work.

Let’s begin with the set, designed by Arnel Sanciano, who created the detailed look of a homey lodge with furniture appropriate to a forested cottage and a collection of weapons and theater posters that evoke mood and history. Props Master Nikki Kulas did special duty creating the tools (weapons and other) that play such an intimate role in this production.

The costumes, designed by Mr. Cotey’s talented wife, Eleanor, captured the essence of the post-Watergate time frame. Her eye for color and composition is in full service to the story being told.

The combination of sound (Grover Hollway) and light (Alexander Ridgers) also play an intimately coordinated role in building suspense and spotlighting the havoc that is wreaked.

But it is the performance by Mr. Watson that carries this play on his shaky shoulders. Alternately insecure and wounded and blustery and certain of the path to rescue, he is a magnificent example of how lust for success can turn a man weak and callow.

Mr. Henning is the perfect foil for Sydney. He is cocksure with the kind of fervor that belongs to the young. He is the embodiment of both fear and opportunity to Sydney and his playing captures everything that Sydney once was and wants to be again.

Ms. Spencer takes a role that could be nothing more than an adjunct to Sydney and turns her into a complex woman who acts as both a check on and an enabler of her husband’s flights of fancy.

Both Mr. Sapiro and Ms. Kababik have their moments of humor but it is Mr. Watson and Mr. Henning who are the engines that take us on this drive through mystery, suspense and great laughs that set a high bar for the rest of the theater season in Milwaukee.

Production Credits: Director, Michael Cotey; Production State Manager, Brandy Kline; Scenic Designer, Arnel Sancianco; Costume Designer, Eleanor Cotey; Lighting Designer, Alexander Ridgers; Properties Master, Nikki Kulas; Sound Designer, Grover Hollway; Dialect Coach, Raeleen McMillion; Fight Director; Christopher Elst; Assistant Director, Sophornia Grace Vowels; Technical Director, John Houtler-McCoy.

“Deathtrap” runs through August 27 and information on showtimes and tickets is available at www.milwaukeechambertheatre.com.

ACT II

*Mr. Elst is a fight director of immense talents and his work adds a believable and crucial element to the production. Without giving anything away there are a couple of fights that demand the kind of precision and drama that are believable without being dangerous to the actors.

*The first act of this play is a sprint, all-out from start to finish. The second act is more of a marathon. Mr. Cotey was brave enough and smart enough to not try and fill the lulls with meaningless tricks. He allowed the play to have the kind of breath that a story of suspense needs to have.

*C. Michael Wright clearly relishes the role of Chamber Theatre as the leader of the pack each season in Milwaukee. Over the last four seasons he’s opened with “Art,” “Master Class,” “Boeing, Boeing” and “Vanya and Sonia and Masha and  Spike.” With “Deathtrap” he continues that successful run and makes me anxious for next season to start.

 

 

About davebegel@gmail.com

Theater Critic in Milwaukee.
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