Mystery ‘Tantalus’ tantalizes in Bend

Play opens Friday at Cascades Theatre

By David Jasper, The Bulletin

What: “Tantalus,” a mystery

When: Opens 7:30 p.m. Friday; additional performances 7:30 p.m. Thursdays through Saturdays, 2 p.m. Sundays, until May 6; preview night 7:30 Thursday; tickets $10, at door only

Where: Cascades Theatre, 148 NW Greenwood Ave., Bend

Cost: $20, $16 seniors, $13 students

Contact: cascadestheatrical.org or 541-389-0803

“Tantalus” is the title, but not ONLY the title, of a thriller by Ian Cullen and Catherine Arley opening Friday at Cascades Theatre.

Let’s take a quick look at that name. Tantalus is a somewhat cryptic word for those of us who aren’t antiques dealers and/or well-versed in Greek mythology. If you’re talking Greek myth, Tantalus was the king who stole nectar from the gods — then tried to fool them into eating human flesh — a crime for which Zeus sentenced him to stand in water that sank when he tried to sip, beneath fruit that was always just beyond his reach, according to the history and science site quatr.us.

If you’re talking alcohol, a tantalus describes a type of small liquor cabinet used to lock up decanters. As Pullman magazine described an early 20th-century tantalus made by G.Betjemann and Son: “The firm’s renowned patent lockable tantalus was ‘designed to stop servants and younger sons getting at the whisky.’”

No stretch of the imagination to see why the contraption is called a tantalus, what with the beverage so tantalizingly near and yet so far. Oh, and according to etymonline.com, we have that mythological Greek Tantalus to thank for the verb “tantalize.”

On to the play: Set in a Paris high-rise circa 1960, “Tantalus” pulls us into a plot hatched by Anton Korff, an imperious figure played by the well-cast Rob Flanagan. Korff, we learn early on, placed a wanted ad in provincial German newspapers soliciting companionship, “marriage probable,” which caught the eye of a young, family-less German woman named Hilde.

Unbeknown to Hilde, Korff may comport himself as though he were to the manner born, but he’s actually the put-upon secretary of an aged and ailing multimillionaire named Karl Richmond. Richard Choate stars as Richmond and, during a recent rehearsal, seemed to relish the role of testy titan.

“This interview goes on for most of the first scene, and we only find out about halfway through that (Korff) is not the millionaire in question,” said director Ron McCracken.

For all his regal bearing, Korff is not (yet) wealthy himself — he wouldn’t mind being a little better off when his difficult employer sheds his mortal coil. He has a plan that involves adopting Hilde, hiring her as a nurse to the unwell Richmond — who happens to own a tantalus, if you’d like some more symbolism involving the word — and getting Richmond to fall for her.

As Hilde, actress Kelley Ryan nails both the accent and character arc of the desperate Hilde, who’s had a hardscrabble life since losing virtually all of her relatives to the war. With nothing to lose, and much to gain, she leans into Korff’s plot to get his tight-fisted, ultra-wealthy employer to spread the wealth. And Korff, who knows Richmond better than anybody, is just the guy to instruct Hilde on how she should play things with Richmond, whom Korff knows well enough to steer toward a wedding proposal.

But if they know each other so well, how is it Korff has a daughter his employer wasn’t aware of? As the story goes, she’s illegitimate, the biological result of his being such a player in his younger years.

Should their efforts prove successful, Hilde’s contractually obliged to share the wealth with Korff, who doesn’t mince words when he tells her, “You’ve been given the opportunity of a lifetime. Now pick up the pen or get out now.” She chooses the pen. What could go wrong? Plenty. When greed rears its ugly head, trust sort of goes out the window.

Director McCracken hints at a great plot twist, but a major spoiler were we to reveal it here. All the intrigue transpires on the high-rise apartment set by Thom Porterfield — and it doesn’t happen without the law coming around.

The cast is rounded out by Daniel Witty as Inspector Lomer, and Shane Ketterman as the droll butler, Edwards, whose tortured servitude brings a bit of levity to the suspenseful, dark matters at hand.

Speaking of levity, “Tantalus” marks a turning point for director McCracken: It’s his first time directing a genre other than comedy.

“It’s hard to hold back on the comedy. Especially when the inspector is in the final scene; I want to Clouseau him up,” McCracken said, referencing The Pink Panther series.

“I think of all these funny things we could do, but then we can’t because it’s supposed to be tense. I’ve thrown in a couple of really, really subtle … things where he plays with stuff around the house, and then Korff puts it back in its spot. But I can’t do too much of that, because it really needs to be tense.”

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