The Many Sides of "Deathtrap" in the Octagon

The Green Room's performance of comedic murder mystery "Deathtrap" will open this Friday. Managing Arts & Living Editor Alex Brandfonbrener '23 previews of the performance, highlighting its effective use of the Octagon, its unorthodox performance space.

The Many Sides of "Deathtrap" in the Octagon
Matt Vitelli '24 and Isabelle Anderson '25 play an embittered husband and wife in "Deathrap," separated by financial squabbles and Vitelli's character's creative stagnation as a playwright. Photo courtesy of Alex Brandfonbrener '23.

While Green Room only began rehearsing Ira Levin’s murder mystery “Deathtrap” this semester, director Caspian Rabaia ’24 started planning the performance all the way back in elementary school: “I read this play in fifth grade, and it genuinely stuck with me. I was like, ‘I want to do this show one day, I want to direct it. I want to do it so badly.’”

I attended their dress rehearsal on Tuesday, less than a week before “Deathtrap’s” opening night performance on Friday, October 22. I was struck by the compelling acting, immersive stage effects and, most of all, the unique space of the performance: the Octagon. It’s a building many Amherst students might not have ever been before. It sits behind Johnson Chapel and, as the name suggests, has eight walls.

The show impactfully makes use of the unusual building as its set in unexpected ways. On an extensive red carpet, the audience sits in two groups on either side of the room, separated by the action of the stage. A veranda wraps around the inside of the walls, high above the floor. It functions as their “backstage,” so that the room is completely open. In the center of the room, an antique chandelier hangs on a thin chain, latching to an opaque skylight. It illuminates the space with warm colored light, accentuated by lamps with paper shades. This warmth is juxtaposed with the ominous nature of the plot, offset by jarring cuts to black between scenes. An imposing wall of weaponry, central to the story, looms threateningly. The unique space imparts a storied, aged quality to the young actors’ interactions.

The show doesn’t just use the Octagon in visual ways, however. It interacts with the room to inform all of the audience’s senses. The squeaky floor echoes the characters’ anxious, indecisive steps, as they pace to-and-fro. Other sounds include the clicking and clacking of an old desk drawer, the taps of a typewriter and the swishing of paper scripts. These objects are central to the plot and interact with the characters in realistic ways.

One of my favorite moments used the Octagon in a way that could not be achieved in any other space. Sydney (Matt Vitelli ’24) walks to the fireplace, actually lighting a fire with the classic “spark” of a match. The flames are later stomped out between scenes. Animate embers sizzle and twitch in the dark. It smells toasty, too.

But originally, the show used the Octagon out of necessity. “Going into this semester, we knew that the Green Room would not have access to the [Theatre and Dance] department’s spaces,” said Rabaia. “We were told [to choose] the Powerhouse or the Octagon, and just to figure it out. [The Octagon] felt like the most appropriate, and I went into staging this with the mindset, ‘Somehow, we have to turn this into a real feeling house.’ It took a lot of fiddling, but it was worth it.”

As for the story, a slow-burning murder mystery seems perfectly apt for the eerie yet cozy space. An aging playwright plots with his wife to steal a young playwright’s original script. She asks him, “Would you actually kill someone to have a successful play?” He responds, “Yes, of course.”

The dialogue is tense with lies and disingenuous social formalities, but still lively, replete with varied language. Voices encompass the space, filling all eight corners of the room.

The characters are well-acted, and all five were standouts. Vitelli’s Sydney is pessimistic but active, engaged, disparaging and unconcerned by the idea compromising his moral compass. His wife (Isabelle Anderson ’25) is eager but resilient, and stands up to him convincingly. Piper Mohring plays the young playwright: enthusiastic, almost euphoric, but carefully spoken.

Ella Rose ‘23 is Helga ten Dorp, a psychic with a thick German accent who acts as the comedic element. Some of my favorite moments involved her unbelievably otherworldly predictions with grave tidings of murder. She swung her arms to the skylight, accentuating how much taller Rose is than the rest of the cast. Finally, Sidney’s attorney Porter (played by Rachel Zhu ’24) is charismatic and experienced, making good use of her own British accent.

I found Levin’s script to be self-reflective, referencing the play’s premise in the plot itself. It’s all about the uncertainty of violence. Does true violence appear differently than stage violence? As Sydney inches closer and closer to murder, the line between the hypothetical and the literal blurs, until the action suddenly bursts into violence. Towards the end, there is also a compelling twist that brings the show’s existential debate into focus (without giving spoilers).

I asked Rabaia to reflect on the story, and he quoted the show itself: “The entire thing is, as Sydney says, ‘an enormous concatenation of unlikely circumstances.’” In a similar way, the intersection of acting, props, action and the irreplaceable locale makes “Deathtrap” a must-watch.

Matt Vitelli '24 and Isabelle Anderson '25 play an embittered husband and wife in "Deathrap," separated by financial squabbles and Vitelli's character's creative stagnation as a playwright. Photo courtesy of Alex Brandfonbrener '23.