Culture | I could hate the sin, but never the theatre

Murder most foul at Tuesday Night Café Theatre

If you haven’t yet caught wind of TNC Theatre’s latest production, John Logan’s Never The Sinner, chances are you’re either dead, in a hermitage, or like the rest of us. And that’s a shame, because what these stalwart theatre kids have put together is a most captivating foray into the minds of two amoral young killers, thoroughly worth our time. Now, if only it could find an audience.

Not that the cast and crew haven’t been trying; in fact, they’ve been pulling out all the stops. But it’s an obvious struggle: how to get college students excited about nudity-free theatre – the cultural equivalent of non-alcoholic beer? Common sense suggests staging a high-profile public execution, but they’ve settled for the next best thing: a press stunt.

Indeed, the past two Wednesdays saw the cast, dressed in full 1920s regalia, attract student attention by enacting a fictive scene from the Leopold and Loeb trial, the historical event that Never The Sinner draws its story from. Though the happenings were poorly attended – some blame the cold, others our collective disdain for culture – the actors frankly expected as much, conducting the stunts primarily for their own amusement, and in hopes that it might give rise to some word-of-mouth action.

Be that as it may, the scene’s amusing era throwbacks (dopey haircuts, beige suits, the use of a notepad) and strident dramatics served as an excellent entrée to the main attraction, whose darker tones are offset by its endearing 1920s flair. That balance – between entertainment and art – is a hard one to strike, let alone maintain for two hours, but the cast pulled it off successfully: of all the laughs, only one felt guilty, and for all the dramatic lines, not a single one felt forced.

Deserving much of the credit, of course, is the playwright. John Logan’s extensive examination of Nathan Leopold and Richard Loeb – two brilliant young men, whose twisted, passionate love affair compelled them to murder – consistently refuses the path of least resistance towards condemnation. The play would prefer to understand the two killers. That it does so at such a fluid pace – cycling through 27 scenes in the span of two hours – is a remarkable achievement.

And there to give that achievement justice was Stephanie Shum’s direction, underpinned by Andrew Robert Martin’s (Leopold) and Peter Farrell’s (Loeb) striking interpretations of the two central characters. Sharing the stage throughout most of the play, the two actors displayed an exceptional chemistry, ably conveying the symbiotic relationship that united the killers.

In particular, praise to Farrell for skilfully skirting the overacting that Loeb’s extroversion – not to mention mood swings – sometimes prescribed. Robert Martin’s introverted Leopold, meanwhile, stood as the play’s strongest display of subtlety, making such bashful expressions as to make me wonder what his parents were like (I assume very nice).

Adding to their chemistry was Julien Naggar – succeeding against all expectations in portraying a 67-year-old Matlock figure – as well as Kyle Foot, who played the prosecution straight: bloodthirsty and righteous. And just as praiseworthy were Kate Sketchley, Rachael Benjamin, and François Macdonald, who each inhabited a whole panoply of stock characters with rare ease and fluidity.

But strong as the performances were, Never The Sinner achieved much of its success through its meticulous mise-en-scène, which firmly kept its audience absorbed by the play’s inquiries into human psychology. The lighting, elegantly handled, could alter the stage at a moment’s notice, turning the courthouse set-arrangements from a jail to a car – or anything else the script required. Meanwhile, actors would quietly slip from one scene to another, flashing back and forth through time, without losing sight of their roles or failing to keep our attention.

But not everything was perfect. Risks were taken with the seating arrangements, which divided the audience along both sides of the theatre – probably so as to overcome spatial constraints. Though it gave the players more room to move, and effectively created two focal points along the stage, it also offered both halves of the audience the chance to stare right at each other. I would recommend our most attractive readers to cover themselves up prior to attending, as they run the risk of distracting the opposite sex for the entire duration of the play.

Still, considering the strength of the performances and the engrossing quality of the production, it’s an issue that most will look past, and some may not even notice. Truth is, you’ll probably all be too busy questioning the moral character of the two killers, and the twisted Nietzschean ethics they weakly embody. It’s a consuming concern, one that holds the play together and – most importantly – ensures that the viewers will have a memorable time.