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No Refund Theatre Presents: ‘Deathtrap’

No Refund Theatre returns with the third production of their fall catalog. This week, the organization presents “Deathtrap.”

Written by Ira Levin and directed by graduate student Zachary Renda, “Deathtrap” tackles the play within a play format, layering complexity as a psychological thriller through a hazy take on the artist’s struggle. Set in Westport, Connecticut, in the 1970s, the story centers around formerly successful murder mystery writer Sidney Bruhl as he searches and schemes for his next big hit. Surrounded by artifacts of his previous works in his private study, Sidney stumbles upon an innovative manuscript guaranteed to be a hit.

Only one problem stands in the way — the hit belongs to young writer Clifford Anderson and was only sent along for review. Adding insult to injury, the fresh talent also sent the script to Sidney after attending the veteran’s seminar at college, placing the answer to Sidney’s career problems right in front of him yet further than ever.

Plotting alongside his wife, Myra, Bruhl draws inspiration from his lifelong catalog to steal the script by any means necessary. As props become weapons and fiction turns to reality, “Deathtrap” blurs the lines between each written work, ending in a final crescendo unlike anything seen in your average twist or turn.  

In bringing the award-winning play to the Penn State community, director Zachary Renda had a clear plan to center his production around the uniqueness of performing live.

“The major thing that is going to bring live theatre back to the mainstage is to focus on its difference from recorded media, rather than trying to emulate it,” Renda said. “One of the biggest differences is that it is real, right in front of you.”

Prioritizing realistic elements of the show, no detail was missed in the culmination of rehearsals. With an intricate set depicting Sidney’s study, many props are scattered across the stage against a decorated background.

“A lot of that was some of my own stuff,” assistant director and fourth-year student Armand Zeibari said. “Everything is basically handmade.” 

In classic NRT style of homemade flair, physical elements of the show came directly from the drive of the production team. One standout example includes the garrote murder weapon, a key prop handcrafted by Renda from his engineering background. 

Adding to this energy, Zeibari also spared no detail in the utilization of easter eggs within the set design.

“The posters are all posters of Sidney Bruhl’s old plays that he wrote,” Zeibari said. “If you listen very closely to all of the monologues, Clifford and Sidney name-drop almost all of them that are up there right now.” 

Summarizing these efforts, assistant director Nathan Carter explained the motivation for the team. 

“There’s a lot of moving parts with this show,” Carter said. “It makes it a bit more difficult, but the end result is more rewarding if we can do it right.” 

Keeping up that mentality, the production also incorporates a variety of technical elements. From intense blackouts to realistic sound effects, an immersive experience is created, adding onto the realism presented in the set’s “weapon wall.” 

Adapted from the original script to fit the director’s vision, this set piece hosts a variety of prop weaponry painting the full picture. Each prop is actually used within the story as well, a stylistic choice made by Renda.

“Since this is a show about playwrights, I wanted to do an homage to one of my favorite thriller writers, Alfred Hitchcock,” Renda said. “He said, ‘You never put a loaded gun on the wall without firing it,’ so every weapon on the wall is used.”

In addition to detail-oriented practices and gender-bending casting, Renda also motivated his cast to study their characters and find what makes each tick within the story. Striving for success, second-year cast member Cale Blakely explained his participation in No Refund Theatre, as well as his journey to his current role, veteran playwright Sidney Bruhl. 

“It’s really fun and it’s been a progression honestly,” Blakely said. “I started out as a minor, featured character and just grew as time went on.”

The cast dedicated much time rehearsing the show to create the finished product. Luckily, they also found a moment for fun, making a promotional video on No Refund Theatre’s new TikTok account. 

“There’s so many spoilers,” assistant director and fourth-year student, Cassandra Albizu said. “So, we were trying to figure out what we could share.” 

Making this decision, the cast decided to feature a behind-the-scenes moment, sharing the process for mixing the prop blood used in the show as a humorous element of “Deathtrap.” 

Another lighthearted effort within the dark play comes from fourth-year student and actor, Joshua Sanville. Reflecting as the moral compass of the story, Sanville plays Hector ten Dorp, a Dutch psychic predicting each evil deed before it happens. 

“Underneath this comedic layer, Hector is the only genuinely good person,” Sanville said. “He’s not really coming out of the woodwork, doing these things to make money or a name for himself. He’s doing it because he sees a problem and is trying to fix it. 

Renda echoed sentiments of flaws turned felonies and elaborated on the theme of the show as well as concluded his hope for the audience.

“It’s kind of a story about how even our good intentions can go wrong, and that’s what I want the audience to really focus on,” Renda said. “If we don’t focus on what we do to the others around us, we might just be the villains of our own stories.”

Three performances of “Deathtrap” will play at 8 p.m. on Thursday, September 29, Friday, September 30, and Saturday, October 1 in Forum 111. A content warning is emphasized for violence and sexuality.

As always, all No Refund Theatre productions are free of charge. 

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About the Author

Lizzie Palmieri

Lizzie is a junior majoring in marketing and psychology from Bucks County, Pennsylvania. Ask her about Disney World, Diet Pepsi, or dancing on the Jumbotron at Beaver Stadium. When not causing general trouble, Lizzie enjoys playing golf, performing in the theatre, and being the CEO of reorganizing the fridge. Her favorite thing to do is hang out with her sassy sidekick, 18-year-old Italian Greyhound, Macaroni. Follow her on Twitter @lizziepalmieri if your deepest desire is bestie vibes only.

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