Staff Writers Luken Sloan and Shaina Sahu watched NOMADS’ Fall 2023 mainstage show—The Thaumatrope Game!

Content warnings: mentions and depictions of death. 

On Friday, December 1, and Saturday, December 2, Columbia-Barnard’s NOMADS—New and Original Material Authored and Directed by Students—performed The Thaumatrope Game, a murder mystery set on a steamboat during World War II. 

Written by Sebastian Bader (CC’26) and directed by Nia Willis (GS’25), The Thaumatrope Game was an exciting and well-produced production. Each piece came together to unveil the mystery thrillingly, and the ending contained an interesting twist. Spoilers are ahead—you have been warned!

The production began with abrupt thrilling music and the cast rushing in as the lights turned on. In a ballroom-like candle-lit room, equipped with a bar, sat rusted chairs and tables of all varieties—creating a vintage and war-torn atmosphere. Behind the main room was a stage that had a giant unsettling yet beautiful picture of the ship’s original owner as well as two separate bedrooms. The rather minimalistic set transported the audience straight to the 1940s beautifully. 

The first scene follows Jakob (Oliver Fuisz, CC’26) and Linsey (Olivia Mendez, CC’25), collectively known as the Dentons, a newly married couple, who board the steamboat holding what seems to be a very important suitcase. They walk into the ballroom, where most of the rest of the characters—a variety of intense, passionate, and peculiar personalities—are seated. 

We meet the Russian girl Anna Ibac (Anivka Hedge, BC’27), the runaway comic-book artist Byrne Ewing (Botond Ekler-Szabo, CC’25), the mysterious and enigmatic Ms. Oh (Esther Lee, CC’25), the ball-bearing businessman Issac Ericcson (Jasmine Richards, BC’26), Russian spy and assassin Abel Jericho (Matthew Vitello, GS’24), Dr. Ernestine Dewitt (Noel Ullom, BC’27), her bandaged wheelchair-ridden patient (Jonathan Pankauski, SEAS, 2nd year PhD), the dashing (in)famous actor in white Montebank Wolfe (Octavia Reohr, CC’27), the gossip-prone zoologist Dr. Lee Rivaldo (Raja Saeed, CC’27), and the odd Cruise Director (Suhani Sharma, BC’25). 

The passengers indulge in their first conversation, and instantly an air of mystery and curiosity seeps in as they wonder, “Who is Ms. Oh?” Strange things begin to happen—Jakob Denton delivers a few jumpscares as he acts overprotective towards his suitcase and his wife, the passengers are served oranges for dinner, and they wonder if Ms. Oh is, in fact, Japanese. The suspense continues into the next scene as Ericcson is seen talking through a secret phone, and we learn that the suitcase contains 20 million dollars.

The atmosphere is, however, very well imbued with humor. The audience cannot go too long without laughing as Wolfe smirks and stares straight into their eyes, staying true to his character, and Ms. Oh and Anna have an awkward conversation where Ms Oh comforts Anna by giving her cliché advice about how the present is all we have, offers her the orange that was her dinner, and struggles to fill the gaps in conversation. This is something that everyone has, at some point, humorously related to.

Thud—what was that sound?

With only Wolfe hearing the thud (which, hilariously, occurred periodically throughout the play), and believing it to be a drug-induced hallucination, the show goes on. What then followed was a series of various scenes following pairs or small groups of characters. 

Zoologist Dr. Rivaldo and actor Wolfe plan their next moves through counter-plots and counter-counter-plots (which Dr. Rivaldo herself calls out as just a plot). More humorously, Dr. Rivaldo complains about the uptight International Zoology Advisory Council, and as the two make a most-likely-to-be-murdered list where Wolfe emerges on top, he exclaims that he cannot die due to his good looks, cultural importance, and signature white outfits. Reohr and Saeed stole the show here; their performances were witty, funny, and interactive, and they both brought their dramatic characters to life.

It is when these two are on stage that one exclaims, “There’s going to be a murder!” and red lights are poured onto the scene. Off-stage a murder does occur. Ewing runs into the scene with a high-pitched scream and we learn that he has found the dead body of Linsey Denton. Jakob and his suitcase, meanwhile, are missing.

Here, in a moment reminiscent of Agatha Christie’s work, the room is sealed and the passengers are asked to remain inside. The director reveals that there is no staff on the boat. We realize that the murderer is present in the room with us!

Ms. Oh reveals her identity as a detective for Interpol, and, as she begins solving the case, in a heartfelt moment where they put their trust in each other, she enlists the help of Anna.

As Oh interrogates the suspects, side plots ensue. We witness wholesome scenes—Ericcson playing the mandolin alone, Dr. Dewitt and Ibac reminiscing about their schoolgirl days with Linsey, and Ewing comforting Ernestine and befriending her. We learn that Ewing is trying to evade capture by Jericho, who is tasked with bringing Ewing back to Russia as the wanted national comic book artist of the Soviet Union. Dr. Dewitt and Ibac encourage Ewing to stand up to Jericho.

Ekler-Szabo was an audience favorite, producing audible “awws” with his hangdog expression and doomed attempt to control his own fate. Vitello also gave a masterly performance, admirably committing to a Soviet accent and a sinister air. 

Jericho and Ewing then confront each other in a room, which leads to the two brawling. Ekler-Szabo stood out here as he brilliantly captured a nervous yet resilient individual fighting for his freedom; his performance as he is thrown around and slammed to the ground is compelling. After fighting for minutes, Jericho stabs Ewing. In a tumultuous turn of events, Oh bursts in and shoots Jericho. Unfortunately, Ewing does not survive the attack, and neither does Jericho. As he dies, Jericho whispers, “she’s a clever woman, she is…”

Explosively, it is announced that a castaway, Arnold Natterson, has come onto the ship. The castaway claims to have appeared due to a failed yacht race, but his story seems fishy.

The story progresses, and so does Oh’s mystery. She gets passengers to open up and discovers a secret panel that leads to tunnels behind the walls—a comedic lifting of the corner of a hanging sheet. When she emerges, she finds multiple passengers running around, chasing one another, in a scene that drew numerous belly laughs. The chaos only increases exponentially, both in the ship and in Oh’s brain. As it calms down, the pieces click together for Oh.

She asks the people to take a seat and begins telling a story, leaving both the contextual and real-life audience on the edge of their seats. 

In the climax of the production, Oh reveals what we were all waiting for: the how, the why, and, most importantly, the who. Despite the suitcase being $20 million dollars worth of uranium, Oh reveals that it was not the motive of the murder. Instead, it was fuelled by a personal vendetta—one held by none other than Dr. Dewitt. As the illegitimate daughter of Natterson, the suspicious castaway, who was wealthy until his divorce and the downfall of his weapons factory, Dr. Dewitt held a grudge against Linsey, her half-sister, since she got to enjoy a luxurious childhood as Natterson’s daughter.

Here, the name of the show makes sense and the audience lets out an “Ooh…!” Oh explains what a thaumatrope is, in this case, a disk with a picture of a bird on one side and a cage on another, when rotated around a string, the two images overlap and become one. Oh explains why Natterson is also guilty. Natterson was able to sneak aboard through illusion; Natterson was the bandaged man.

This is followed by a beautiful lament by Dr. Dewitt where the audience feels her pain and sympathizes with her.

Then we learn that Dr. Rivaldo’s orangutan has gone rogue, and it travels through the steamboat’s secret tunnels to the engine room where it destroys the engine. The Cruise Director, drunk and exhausted, hauntingly informs the passengers of their impending doom (as the lifeboats have bullet holes in them).

The mystery has been solved, but none will live to tell about it. 

Digesting this news, the characters share what they earlier hesitated to do and accept their fate. The production of this scene was eerily well-done: spotlights highlighted individual characters and storylines while creating a somber mood throughout the set; the actors, after their respective moments in the limelight, remained still, frozen in time; and the audience was left speechless as the ending unfolded.

Perhaps the most emotional moment of the production was the ending. 

Dr. Dewitt tells her father that she forgives him for everything, while he carelessly yet confidently replies, “Nothing is wrong if you thought it was right. You decide your fate. Never let the world win.”

In the center of the stage, Ibac and Oh stand. Ibac, furious, had accused Oh of lying to her despite their connection. Oh feels deep regret for disappointing Anna, and tells her the entire truth. Hurt and confused, the two realize how similar they are—both of them lost the love of their life. They were sent on awry paths because they had no one to depend on; they were alone.

It is a heart-wrenching moment, a point of solace, even if fleeting, from the inevitability of death. Anna places her hand on Oh’s and says, “We’re not alone.” The ship goes down, yet the audience is washed with a certain warmth. The message is clear—as long as we’re not alone, we’ll be okay.

The staging was admirably done, the set invoking the interior of a ship in a way that felt imaginative and original. The constant presence of the mysterious bandaged man, who was first Natterson and then Denton, evoked a comically eerie feeling that consistently garnered laughs even when the man was doing nothing but sitting there. This device was an ingenious visual gag as well as a clever spin on the “hidden in plain sight” trope. 

Carried by solid performances and above all buoyed by professional-quality writing, The Thaumatrope Game was an exciting testament to the talent of Columbia students and the possibilities of student theater. 

The Thaumatrope Game via event page