Isn’t it funny how a simple phrase can unlock a set of memories?
While listening to a podcast on my way home from work today, I heard one of the hosts use the phrase “death trap” in their dialogue. Which, suddenly, wholly, and vividly threw me back in time to the summer of my freshman year of high school. That year, I spent three weeks at the University of Wyoming as part of a summer program (which will henceforth be referred to as HSI). 100 Wyoming students on the cusp of becoming sophomores were participants. We lived in the dorms, took classes on campus, and got sick from the cafeteria food.
Ah, the memories I have of those three weeks. From my introduction to The Dark Tower to the hair dye/dead cat shenanigans to a boy named Kevin outlining the holes of my fishnets so it looked like I had inked on scales when I went to sleep at night, they were an interesting 21 days.
But a meandering post full of reminiscing is not really what we’re doing today. While in Laramie, I attended my first theatre production that was not a musical. While I had acted in various productions, up until that point I had only seen Man of La Mancha performed. Theatre just wasn’t that important to me.
And this play, down there on the UW campus… I realize now that this was the turning point for me.
The production was Deathtrap, a show by Ira Levin (writer of both Rosemary’s Baby and The Stepford Wives). It’s the story of a playwright and his promising young student. The playwright has been suffering a case of writer’s block and can’t come up with any new ideas. His student, however, has just written a fabulous new show. The playwright decides to kill the student and steal his play.
The playwright’s wife is upset by this, and the playwright assures her he’s just kidding. However, when he has the student over for drinks one night, he actually does murder the young man. His wife is horrified.
After a visit from their neighbor (who happens to be a psychic), the playwright continues telling his wife how great their lives will be once he publishes his student’s play under his own name. Suddenly, the lights go out, and the muddy form of the student grabs the playwright. They struggle, and in the chaos of the attack, the playwright’s wife has a heart attack.
At this, both men stop what they are doing and rush over to check if she’s really dead. Once they confirm that she’s kicked the bucket, they kiss.
That’s right- turns out the playwright and the student were having an affair. They needed to get rid of the playwright’s wife in order to be together. However, that’s just Act 1. Act 2 has the two men living and working together. The playwright still has writer’s block, and the student is seen busily working on a script- a script he locks up at the end of every day.
It’s finally revealed that the script is called Deathtrap, and it’s the story of how the playwright’s wife was killed (Shakespeare’s old play-within-a-play kind of situation). The two men fight about whether or not to publish the play- the student says nobody would ever suspect this story was a confession, but the playwright wants to burn the script. They fight with the weapons scattered about on the playwright’s office walls (old props from his various stage shows), eventually killing each other.
There’s a bit more with the crazy psychic and an attorney, and then it’s curtains for the show.
It’s a great show.
However, because I hail from super conservative Wyoming, the whole “gay kiss” thing didn’t fly too well among the students in our program. Three girls were so outraged that they had to see that that they literally got up and left the theater immediately, prompting our chaperons to run after them.
A huge fuss was made. Roughly half of the students in our group sided with the girls. They complained that they should have been warned about the gay scene and had the option to opt out of the trip. They berated the program coordinators for promoting this vile behavior and subjecting us poor, innocent widdle childwen to such lewd and unnatural acts.
Needless to say, the program divided itself pretty harshly for the remaining few days. Lots of fighting ensued (and yes, I was quite often a participant… I just don’t know how to keep my mouth shut). Parents were called. Kids left early.
What a mess.
Okay, so I was pissed about the whole thing and just wanted to punch those girls in the tits, but there was also a part of me that was excited by it all. Not by the homophobia or the overreactions. It was the fact that a play could do this. I had seen theatre entertain. I had never seen it engage and teach and tell people to fuck off.
It was Deathtrap that really pushed me into theatre, where I spent years in a violent love affair with the art. And even thought I’m no longer directly involved in productions, I still find I’ve left a piece of my heart on the stage.
So, as I drove home from work this morning, I was flooded with memories of that show and, for the first time, really understood its impact on my life.
It’s funny- years after I saw it, when I was all set to direct my first show, Deathtrap was actually one of the options I presented to the Players to vote on (along with Proof and Bus Stop and, the winner, Dangerous Liaisons). Years down the road, and it was still burning there in my mind.
Anyway, just felt like sharing that, dear galleons.