See more of the story

It's a dilemma actors and directors face all the time: People come to the theater to see a popular title that's also a film and expect to see the movie essentially re-created onstage. When that play is "Rope," also an iconic Alfred Hitchcock film, Peter Christian Hansen has a message for them:

The play came first.

Hansen is artistic director of Gremlin Theatre, where his production of the 1929 play opens Friday. The 1948 Hitchcockian film might be better known, but he has never seen it.

"When we decided to do the show, I thought, there's no sense in watching it now," Hansen said, laughing. "I think what's going to be really fun is that there's enough similarities to get what they love about the movie, and they will like the differences."

Hansen is staging "Rope" at a time when true crime is having a cultural moment, with documentaries, movies, podcasts and video games getting in on the action. Crafted by British playwright Patrick Hamilton, who also wrote "Gas Light," "Rope" was inspired by the 1924 killing of 14-year-old Bobby Franks by University of Chicago students Nathan Leopold and Richard Loeb.

Hamilton transposed the action to London from Chicago and renamed the college killers Wyndham Brandon and Charles Granillo. In the thriller, they murder a fellow student and stuff his corpse into a chest that's used as a buffet table for their subsequent party.

They are so confident that they have committed the perfect crime that they have basically invited an audience to the scene.

That life-and-death juxtaposition of the light, airy conversations that people have at cocktail parties with the gravity of a recently cold body is one of the things that makes "Rope" so compelling, Hansen said. The action also unfolds in Gremlin's three-quarter thrust playing space, which means that the audience will have a sort of immersion in murder.

"The taking of someone's life is a huge deal but for those of us who haven't done that, which is most people, it's an unfathomable gulf," Hansen said. "This play travels over that."

Legendary Guthrie actor Hume Cronyn adapted the play for the Hitchcock feature, which starred Jimmy Stewart. Hansen said that he appreciates what cinema can do, including efficiently using images to evoke scenes and emotions.

Actors, directors and film editors have a lot of tricks at their disposal in cinema that they can use the telegraph scenography, mood and meaning. They can more easily show than tell. Movies, Hansen notes, can be more visual while plays tend to be more talky. Besides, theater also can use lights and sounds to immerse the audience in the experience.

Hansen has tapped some students and recent graduates of the University of Minnesota and St. Olaf College, his alma mater, for the cast. Coleson Eldredge plays Brandon and Jeremy Bode is Granillo. Both are closer to the ages of the characters in the play.

"That gives us an opportunity to have more substance and go into more depth," Hansen said. "These characters are quirky, interesting and more fully fleshed out."

He pointed to two titillating lines that Granillo says as he sits in an armchair at the beginning of "Rope." "It's in the room, you know. Do you think we'll get away with it?"

'Rope'

Who: Written by Patrick Hamilton. Directed by Peter Christian Hansen.

When: 7:30 p.m. Wed.-Sat., 3 p.m. Sun. Ends Aug. 4.

Where: Gremlin Theatre, 550 Vandalia St., St. Paul.

Tickets: $1.60-$42.09. gremlintheatre.org.