Playing With Perception

Forget the last-minute problems at Invisible Theatre: 'Dead Certain' is a fascinating delight

While the identity of the author of Criminal Hearts, now at Beowulf Alley, is in question, I have no doubt that Dead Certain, which opened last week at Invisible Theatre, was also written pseudonymously. This mystery thriller is credited to an Englishman named Marcus Lloyd, but surely the true author is M.C. Escher, the artist whose prints toy with symmetry and perspective, manipulating our quirks of perception and causing us to believe in infinite loops of impossible objects.

But let's give Lloyd the benefit of the doubt when it comes to his existence, for Dead Certain is an extraordinarily clever theatrical debut; it was first produced in England in 1999, and Invisible Theatre seems to be offering its American premiere.

The lights come up on Elizabeth, a theater-obsessed, wheelchair-bound ex-dancer, and Michael, a handsome young actor who has been hired, sight unseen, to come over and read through a play that Elizabeth has written. The themes of her work, Elizabeth announces, are freedom, empowerment and identity. It soon becomes apparent that she is talking about more than her play.

The reading begins, and Michael finds himself in a scene that almost exactly duplicates his interaction so far with Elizabeth. How could this be? And how is it that certain subtle touches in the script allude to details of his life that Elizabeth, a stranger, couldn't possibly know?

To describe any more of the plot would spoil much of the delight to be had as this play unfolds. Suffice it to say that, early on, in response to one of Elizabeth's odd interview questions, Michael declares, "Sometimes I don't feel that I'm choosing; I'm just responding according to who I am." Ah, but who is he, really, and just why is Elizabeth manipulating him in this way? For, despite Elizabeth's protestations, it can't all be coincidental. "I don't believe in accidents," she states ominously early on. "In the end, you always find someone who is responsible."

And if you think from what little I've written so far that you've got Elizabeth's motivations figured out, don't be so sure. Lloyd adds one twist and diversion after another as the end approaches, perhaps more twists than necessary, and Elizabeth's true goals remain in question right to the final blackout.

Dead Certain owes much to Sleuth (best known from its 1972 film version with Laurence Olivier and Michael Caine), although Lloyd's play is more an homage to the earlier work than a derivative of it. Lloyd also indulges in mischievous tricks that remind us that we're watching a play about a play. Almost immediately, he has Elizabeth casually display a pair of pistols, which she does while explaining to Michael that a playwright must establish the presence of a gun early on, in order to earn its use at the end. She also notes that this often causes the audience to look for faint bloodstains on the set from previous performances. And sure enough, we start eyeing the flats more carefully. Just what is that smudge on the wall under the framed Follies poster, anyway?

The Invisible Theatre staff only encourages these sorts of audience games by dressing the set with such books as Sweet Revenge and Alibi for an Actress. This production is nothing if not detailed.

It was almost derailed before it opened. An immigration complication forced the English actor originally engaged to play Michael to go home just as rehearsals were beginning, and the actress cast as Elizabeth had to be replaced a week-and-a-half before opening night. The opening had to be delayed a week to give the new actress time to get up to speed.

But you'd never suspect any of this from the performances. If Maedell Dixon, one of Tucson's most valuable theatrical pros, had any little memory slips on opening night, she folded them smoothly into Elizabeth's slightly flighty nature early in the play. Dixon somehow unified all the disparate aspects of Elizabeth's character. If we were never sure exactly when we were seeing the real Elizabeth, we never saw a false Elizabeth; everything about her ultimately made sense.

As Michael, perhaps Max Bird-Ridnell was a bit too self-assured in the early scenes, considering that he was playing an out-of-work actor with a self-destructive streak, but it's important not to give too much of this away too soon. Polite, easily embarrassed, but direct when he needs to be, Bird-Ridnell's Michael displays the firmness he'll need to try to wrest control of the situation from Elizabeth, but you can meanwhile sense the soft core that has been his lifelong downfall.

Director Susan Claassen keeps the action moving cleanly, while encouraging her actors to relish their characters' ambiguity without losing focus.

We leave the theater with the nagging feeling that what we've seen is more a remarkable literary stunt than an honest play, but it's no less involving for that. Dead Certain is less a script than a Möbius strip, a one-sided surface twisting back around upon itself in a perpetual loop, and that's the sort of thing that can provide endless fascination.