Michael G. Lilienthal: The play’s the trap in upcoming show

Published 9:34 pm Friday, March 18, 2022

The trap is set, but who has laid it, and whom to catch?

The comedic thriller “Deathtrap” is more than a whodunit, and no brilliant detective will swoop in with all the answers at the end. That’s not a spoiler, by the way. There are many questions in the play that will be answered throughout the production, leaving audiences guessing and trying to read the writing — and the weapons — on the wall.

It’s a play about plays. “Deathtrap,” for example, is an unfinished script within the play. Half a dozen times, characters narrate the outline of the entire drama, as if it were fictional within this fictional world. The central character, Sidney Bruhl (played by Kurt Crocker) is a playwright suffering a massive case of writer’s block. Aaron McVicker plays Clifford Anderson, an up-and-coming playwright who will serve as either a danger or inspiration to Sidney. These characters concoct an unlikely set of circumstances into a story for which they and the other characters are both audience and players. While in many stories these layers of self-awareness might come across as merely self-indulgent, in Albert Lea Community Theatre’s “Deathtrap,” it’s just delightful.

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Director George Favell has brought together a cast that is terrifyingly fun. Every member bubbles over with joy and love in their cooperation and collaboration. If for no other reason than to watch these beautiful people working together, you need to see this play.

Crocker’s Sidney bristles with narcissistic anxiety and playful self-deprecation. He is captivating as he runs with the energy of a mouse in a maze — or is he the cat? Meanwhile his wife Myra, played by Risha Lilienthal, simmers with rage as she schemes and plots or is schemed and plotted against. From their first moments together, the maddening commingling of love and hate in the couple is not for the faint of heart.

Arguably, the relationship between Clifford and Sidney is stronger than that between Myra and Sidney. Aaron McVicker brings a dynamic range to Clifford. His naïve idealism makes him sympathetic, while his nefarious victory (or tragic defeat) wrenches at the nerves. He’ll keep you guessing, but he’ll also keep you watching.

The other two characters — Helga ten Dorp, played with joyous vivacity by Bev Loos, and Porter Milgrim, animated by Jon Cochran’s curious wonder — either ask the right questions or have all the answers, or maybe they just muddy the issue. The psychic Helga tells you everything that will happen throughout the action, and the lawyer Porter is just observant enough to steer you in a direction, but the thing you have to remember about this play is that everyone lies — or at least doesn’t tell you everything.

Sidney and Clifford are playwrights, remember, whose very business is to deceive, and Sidney confesses at one point that he hopes to insert “the inimitable Sidney Bruhl flavor” into the work of others. The musical score is jaunty and fun, but also tells you in no uncertain terms that everyone is up to something. The moral, if there is one, seems to be that ideas are deadly.

In this self-awareness of the play, the set threatens to slam shut on its victim, whoever that is. The weapons that decorate the walls prove that death can come from anywhere. Fortunately for audiences, we don’t have to take it too seriously. The players in ACT’s show are bringing you a story for sheer delight — or are they? Have a few laughs while you watch the trap loom over these five characters. Sit secure in the knowledge that while this play is sure to kill, it’s made with love.

Michael G. Lilienthal serves as the pastor of Our Savior’s Lutheran Church in Albert Lea, and in his free time enjoys writing, reading and podcasting on the Tapestry Radio Network. He competed nationally at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C., for Theatre Criticism in 2011. He has also written a handful of short plays and one full-length production called “The Oak Trees Still Stand.” Lilienthal lives in Albert Lea with his wife, Sarah, and their several foster children.