TEA's 'Deathtrap' opens this weekend

Mike Easterling
Tim Bagley reacts during a rehearsal of the Theater Ensemble Arts production of 'Deathtrap' on Jan. 21 at the Spotlight Theater at Farmington High School.

FARMINGTON — Movie and television violence has become so commonplace these days, even the most graphic shoot-‘em-up/smash-‘em-up scene largely leaves audiences yawning, “The Revenant” notwithstanding.

But director Steve Clark figures that blasé attitude won’t carry over to those in the crowd when Theater Ensemble Arts debuts its production of the classic thriller “Deathtrap” this weekend.

“There’s something a little bit scarier about living, breathing persons a few feet away from you simulating violence,” he said of the play, an Ira Levin-authored work that focuses on a washed-up playwright who plots to kill a student who has written a masterful new play, counting on passing off the work as his own. “Even though you know nothing bad is happening to those characters, it’s still a little bit more harrowing.”

Jymi Rogers rehearses a scene from the thriller 'Deathtrap' Jan. 21 at the Spotlight Theater at Farmington High School.

But theater fans without much of a stomach for violence needn’t worry, Clark said — “Deathtrap,” while full of suspense, doesn’t exactly fall into the horror or action genre. In fact, what he likes best about the play is its gentle humor and self-referential style.

“This is a play about a play with winks and nods to the genre and the form,” he said.

In fact, the play is so self-referential, Clark said, that its opening line is, “‘Deathtrap’ — a thriller in two acts,” which neatly encapsulates the work.

Or does it? As Clark gleefully pointed out, “Of course, then mayhem ensues.”

Clark was most recently seen by TEA fans portraying Ellery Forrestal in the company’s production of the E.M. Lewis drama “Song of Extinction” in April 2015. For this production, he’s working behind the scenes, but it’s by no means his first rodeo when it comes to directing TEA projects. He also has helmed “God of Carnage” and “Fool for Love” for the company.

He said he has enjoyed the experience of directing “Deathtrap.”

Actor Syd Neylan, pictured here during a rehearsal of the thriller 'Deathtrap,'  was once a high school student of the production's director, Steve Clark.

“It’s in a genre I enjoy. It’s a thriller, and even though it premiered in 1978, it’s very ahead of its time. It’s very self-aware,” he said, comparing it to the work of horror film master Wes Craven, well known for his penchant for having actors portray themselves in his movies or having them reference scenes from well-known slasher films that reflect their situation.

“This is much the same,” Clark said. “It’s a thriller that comments on thrillers.”

Levin’s play was adapted for the big screen in 1982 by director Sidney Lumet, with Michael Caine and the late Christopher Reeve starring. Clark said he saw the film then, but has resisted watching it again so as to approach the script with a fresh perspective — and he has advised his cast to do the same.

Tim Bagley portrays aging playwright Sidney Bruhl in the TEA production, while the role of student Clifford Anderson is handled by Syd Neylan. Jymi Rogers portrays Myra, Bruhl’s wife, and Rhonda Sigler plays Helga ten Dorp, a Dutch psychic who lives down the road from the Bruhls and senses that something is amiss. The final character is Porter Milgrim, Sidney’s attorney, played by TEA newcomer Dan Ware.

“He’s from Albuquerque, and he’s been working in Farmington,” Clark said. “He wanted something to do with his free time.”

Rhonda Sigler, left, and Tim Bagley run through a scene during a rehearsal of 'Deathtrap' on Jan. 21 at the Spotlight Theater at Farmington High School.

Ware had done some acting in school and decided to see if he still had some dramatic chops, Clark said.

“He auditioned on a whim, and he’s doing a great job,” he said.

Clark, a drama teacher at Farmington High School, is far more familiar with the work of Neylan.

“He was one of my high school theater students years ago,” Clark said.

Real-life civil engineer Bernard Coffee is designing the sets for the production, and Clark described him as a wizard. The play is staged in a Connecticut country home that is a converted horse stable, and Clark said Coffee has come up with an abstract design that features lots of posts and beams that are broken off.

“That suggests the architecture, but the fact that it’s broken makes it look like a trap,” Clark said.

Syd Neylan portrays student Clifford Anderson during a rehearsal of 'Deathtrap' by Ira Levin on Jan. 21 at the Spotlight Theater at Farmington High School.

Even those who are well familiar with the film should check out the TEA production of “Deathtrap,” he said.

“There’s always a difference between a live performance and a recorded performance of any kind,” he said. “There’s no definitive version of any script, and our actors have had the opportunity to interpret it again.”

The director is eager to raise the curtain on his production and hopes the audience finds the play as enjoyable as he does.

“It’s got a rhythm of tension and release,” he said. “Even (Alfred) Hitchcock realized you have to insert some comedy in there to release the tension. I like to think the funny parts are quite funny. I think it’ll be a real roller coaster.”

Mike Easterling is the A&E editor of The Daily Times. He can be reached at 505-564-4610.

Syd Neylan, left, and Tim Bagley are pictured in a scene from the thriller 'Deathtrap' during a Jan. 21 rehearsal at the Spotlight Theater at Farmington High School.

If you go

What: The Theater Ensemble Arts production of “Deathtrap”

When: 7:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday, Jan. 29-30, and Friday and Saturday, Feb. 5-6; and 2:30 p.m. Sunday, Feb. 7

Where: The Totah Theater, 315 W. Main St. in downtown Farmington

Admission: $10 for adults, $8 for seniors and students

For more information: Call 505-326-2839