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“The Perfect Detonator” by Duke Professor Jody McAuliffe Raises Some Interesting Questions

Duke senior Thomas Kavanagh plays Unabomber Ted Kaczynski in "The Perfect Detonator," Duke Professor Jody McAuliffe's adaptation of Joseph Conrad's "The Secret Agent," in which Kaczynski's world merges with the world of terrorism and anarchy in 19th century London (photo by Les Todd)

Duke senior Thomas Kavanagh plays Unabomber Ted Kaczynski in “The Perfect Detonator,” Duke Professor Jody McAuliffe’s adaptation of Joseph Conrad’s “The Secret Agent,” in which Kaczynski’s world merges with the world of terrorism and anarchy in 19th century London (photo by Les Todd)

Is technology making us all mad? Or was it just Ted Kaczynski? Or Joseph Conrad? Or Adolph Verloc? Or are we all just mad? The current Duke Theater Studies production of The Perfect Detonator, adapted and directed by Duke professor Jody McAuliffe from Joseph Conrad’s 1907 novel, The Secret Agent, raises some interesting questions.

McAuliffe has very adroitly woven the man we know as the Unabomber, Ted Kaczynski, into the plot in order to help us get into the minds of terrorists. She accomplishes her purpose with a powerful set designed by Sonya Drum, eight excellent actors, and startling video supplements by William Noland.

The set consists of a reconstruction of Kaczynski’s cabin, into one wall of which is inserted a monitor with a looped tape of warring bears. In the space above the cabin roof rests a large screen on which chapter titles and videos are flashed, sometimes broadcast from a live onstage camera, giving an eerie sense of fragmented experience contrasting isolation with the now ever-present sense of being watched by “someone.”

Costume designer Tilly Grimes has created excellent garb for all the characters, running the gamut from Kaczynski’s drab, substantial, blue shirts and work pants to Constable’s uniforms, Ambassador’s formal wear, street clothes for the conspirators and a handsome ensemble for Winnie Verloc, the wife of the main suspect. Along with excellent characterizations from the actors, and eerie choreography by Clay Taliaferro, these elements make for an almost overwhelming experience

Dramatist and director Jody McAuliffe carefully segues from Kaczynski’s cabin in the 1970s through the 1990s to London in 1886 and back again seamlessly, apparently as if Kaczynski were reading the book, as, we understand, he did numerous times. The plot is essentially Conrad’s story, which is based on the death of French Anarchist Martial Bourdin (1868-94) in Greenwich Park to a prematurely detonated bomb allegedly intended to destroy the Greenwich Observatory. Two important elements of the story are the constant surveillance of suspects and the philosophical polemics among the conspirators.

Characters of "The Perfect Detonator" by Jody McAuliffe include (from left) Ossipon (Nick Orr), Stevie (Madeline Taylor), Kaczynski (Thomas Kavanagh), and Verloc (Dan McGough) (photo by Les Todd)

Characters of “The Perfect Detonator” by Jody McAuliffe include (from left) Ossipon (Nick Orr), Stevie (Madeline Taylor), Kaczynski (Thomas Kavanagh), and Verloc (Dan McGough) (photo by Les Todd)

Of the eight actors, six carry multiple roles, and do so with distinction and speed. Emily Livingstone, Mike Basmajian, Rachel Freedman, and Nick Orr are outstanding, shifting among three to five roles each. Mike Basmajian is to be applauded for his renditions of Heat and Michaelis; Rachel Freedman for her frail and weakened Winnie’s Mother and the marvelously pompous Secretary of State, Sir Ethelred; Emily Levingstone was amusing as the constable, and suave as the Ambassador, Mr. Vladimir; and Nick Orr is sly and sneaky as Ossipon and delightfully pathetic as the Deathcab Driver.

Dan McGough performs Adolph Verloc ably, with a severe demeanor that only cracks when he is faced with the consequences of a deadly mistake. Madeline Taylor does a remarkable job of presenting Stevie, a teenage boy with the mental age of a young child, who is Winnie’s younger brother and responsibility. Julie Donnell is able to fit the role of Winnie well, showing range and promise. The role of Ted Kaczynski — and three other roles — are handled by Thomas Kavanagh, who gives us a fully in-depth portrayal of the brilliant and probably insane Unabomber.

The questions of the mental health of terrorists in general and the philosophical enflaming of the heart to an ideal that surpasses ordinary morality are raised here. There are also many more questions that arise in discussion of terrorism, and viewers of this show may find them in the watching.

SECOND OPINION: Nov. 12th Durham, NC Indy Week mini-preview by Byron Woods:; and Sept. 1st Durham, NC Duke Chronicle (student newspaper) preview by Kari Barclay:

Duke Theater Studies presents THE PERFECT DETONATOR, adapted and directed by Jody McAuliffe, at 8 p.m. Nov. 20-22 and 2 p.m. Nov. 23 in the Emma A. Sheafer Laboratory Theater in the Bryan Center, 125 Science Dr., Durham, NC 27708, on Duke University’s West Campus.

TICKETS: $10 ($5 students and seniors 65+ and $8 Duke employees and groups of 10+).

BOX OFFICE: 919-684-4444,, and

SHOW:,, and





The Secret Agent (1907 novel): (Wikipedia).

Joseph Conrad (Polish-born English novelist, 1857-1924): (Wikipedia).

Jody McAuliffe (adapter and director): (Duke Theater Studies bio).


Martha Keravuori is a life-long theater artist — an actress, director, and stage manager — in North Carolina, around the country, and overseas. She has a theater degree from UNC-Greensboro, and has been active in the arts in Raleigh for the past 40 years. Martha is the retired executive director of the North Carolina Theatre Conference. Chuck Galle returned to Raleigh last year after a 17-year absence. He was active in community theater for many years, and directed the troupe of maximum-security inmates at Raleigh’s Central Prison known as the Central Prison Players. In New England, he performed on stage, on TV, and in films. He is the author of Stories I Never Told My Daughter — An Odyssey, which can be ordered on his website: Chuck Galle and Martha Keravuori review theater for Boom! Magazine of Cary. Click here to read more of their reviews for Boom! Magazine and here to read more of their reviews for Triangle Review and Triangle Arts and Entertainment.

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