Special To The Chronicle
Special To The Chronicle

This year’s Theater Studies Department main stage season looks like it will be off to an explosive start. In November, the department will present the premiere of a new play, "The Perfect Detonator," which follows Ted Kaczynski, the Unabomber, as he reads Joseph Conrad’s "The Secret Agent." In the process, Conrad’s fictional tale of a 19th century anarchist bomb plot in London will intersect with Ted Kaczynski’s real life bomb plots in the United States.

The script was adapted from Conrad’s novel by Theater Studies professor Jody McAuliffe, who will also direct the piece. McAuliffe’s last production at Duke, "Young Jean Lee’s Lear," was an absurdist take on Shakespeare’s King Lear that explored the loss of a father. The production featured toadstools, children’s toys, Elizabethan costumes and stylized acting. All of those elements were a testament to McAuliffe’s vibrant visual imagination and sense of story. "The Perfect Detonator" promises to be another example of McAuliffe’s inventive directing.

McAuliffe developed the idea for "The Perfect Detonator" after James Benning, a documentary artist who wrote about Ted Kaczynski, visited campus.

“Benning had reconstructed Henry David Thoreau's and Ted Kaczynski's iconic cabins,” McAuliffe said. “He used these structures to reflect on utopian and dystopian versions of social isolation. Benning’s visit reignited my interest in the controversial figure of Kaczynski, particularly in his connection to Thoreau. I developed a plan to read the books that Kaczynski kept in his cabin and I started, fatefully, with Conrad’s 'The Secret Agent,' a most significant book for Kaczynski.”

"The Secret Agent" tracks members of an anarchist cell in 1886 London as they plan to bomb the Greenwich Observatory, a symbol of science and industrialization. In the process, the novel explores what rationale people would have for terrorist acts.

"Like the Unabomber, Conrad saw industrial society as at odds with the human heart,” McAuliffe said.

"The Secret Agent" also has taken on new meaning in the wake of the attacks of Sept. 11, and as a literary exploration of terrorism, was widely cited by the media following the attacks. The play will provide an opportunity for Conrad’s novel and the story of the Unabomber resonate with contemporary audiences and their understanding of present-day terrorism.

The cast of eight actors features many first-years and new faces for Duke’s theater scene. Senior Thomas Kavanagh who acted in, among other works, Theater Studies’ main stage show from last year, "Uncle Vanya," and directed the 2014 orientation show "Demon Baby," will play Ted Kaczynski.

“I’m presenting the life of a real person who’s in maximum security prison in Colorado,” said Kavanagh. “It will be a challenge to give him the necessary complexity and not to fall back on the media’s portrayal.”

McAuliffe also aims to engage students from other parts of the university. She is collaborating with professor Tim Nichols, an expert on counterterrorism and homeland security, so that his class can see parts of the rehearsal and production process and see topics from their coursework play out in a theatrical context. Additionally, McAuliffe plans to share aspects of the show in a production blog and to engage students from Durham School of the Arts, Durham Academy and Duke in seeing the production and participating in post-show discussions.

"The Perfect Detonator" promises to present an engaging exploration of terrorists’ mindsets and to leave an impact on its audiences. In the words of Joseph Conrad, “An explosion is the most lasting thing in the universe.”

The Perfector Detonator will run Nov. 13 to Nov. 23 in Sheafer Lab Theater in the Bryan Center. Tickers will be available through the Duke Box Office or online. More information at http://theaterstudies.duke.edu.