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True-Crime Character: John Malkovich as Jack Unterweger (writer, serial killer, and all around creepy dude)

Hill Auditorium is not a typical setting for a piece of theatre.  After the lights go down, it’s mainly a great big sound box.  Hmmm, let’s see, is there any way you could actually get people to look at the stage, instead of sliding down in their seats for an excellently sound-tracked doze?

How about you put John Malkovich up there with a Dr. Strangelove accent, doing that snakey walk of his around a forty-piece orchestra and strangling a couple of sopranos with brassieres while they sing Mozart lieder? That roadshow actually exists and is coming to Hill Auditorium on October 1 at 8 pm. The show is called The Infernal Comedy: Confessions of a Serial Killer, a performance piece in which Malkovich plays a real person, Austrian serial killer Jack Unterweger.

Written by Michael Sturminger, what happens onstage appears to be mostly a fictional delving into Unterweger’s brain, though had Unterweger not dispatched himself in 1994, he might well have written it himself.  As a theatrical concept, it’s hands-down brilliant.  Forget Unterweger for a minute. It seems to me that for a small European country, Austria has produced disquieting amounts of both sublime beauty and creepiness.  The Infernal Comedy sounds like the answer to some challenge like: “explain, in a performance piece, what’s the deal with Austria?”

As for Unterweger himself, who, I almost want to say, never got the fame he deserved, you can read a full account of him in John Leake’s Entering Hades: The Double Life of a Serial Killer (Farrar, Strauss & Giroux, 2007).  Briefly, young punk Unterweger was sentenced to life in prison in 1975 for murdering a young woman. While in prison, he educated and redeemed himself, writing prose and poetry that dazzled the high literati of Austria. They in turn pressured the court system to pardon him in 1990. The now urbane and educated Unterweger immediately became a celebrity journalist, specializing in reporting on prostitute murders.  Oddly, it took the Austrian gendarmerie a while to remember that Austria didn’t really have a problem with prostitute murders until Unterweger started reporting on them. He was caught, tried, and hanged himself on the way to prison.

A few days ago, I talked to Gregg Barak, professor of criminology at EMU, about Unterweger.  He began by throwing me a curveball about my use of the term “psychopath” to describe him.

“Absolutely not a psychopath,” insists Barak, “and neither was Ted Bundy, for that matter.” This shakes the bedrock upon which my, and perhaps your, notions of sexual serial killer crime are founded.  Barak’s argument is dense and complex, and deserves a fuller airing than I can give here.  Instead, I’ll just pick out a few other standout comments from our conversation.

Unterweger was, says Barak, the smartest, most fascinating serial killer ever, bar none.  “How many go to prison and say: ‘I’m going to write my way out of here.’?” he asks.  “Probably a pretty high percentage. How many actually do?” And not just with some one-note self-absorbed autobiography, like Jack Abbott (better remembered as an uncomfortable moment in Norman Mailer’s life). Unterweger, says Barak, “was writing in all genres: fiction, poetry, plays, childrens’ literature.”  As evidence of his highly organized, complex, and multilayered mind, Barak notes: “he was having straight sex, kinky sex, and killer sex, all during the same period of time.”

U-M Students who want to hear more of Barak’s line of argument can hear him talk at the Arts & Eats pre-show event on October 1.  Others can read one of his books or snag him — he’s a pretty personable guy — at intermission.

Importance of Being Earnest

Ann Arbor Observer‘s Sally Mitani gives us a stellar sneak peek into the UMS presentation of The Importance of Being Earnest, a high-definition broadcast at the Michigan Theater on Thursday, June 2 at 7 pm.

Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest is a remarkable play. It’s over 100 years old and still as light and funny as the day it was born. It’s not Hamlet or Macbeth, mind you — it doesn’t mature like fine wine or cheese, always developing new flavors and textures. It’s more like an ice cream soda that you’ve left on the table for 100 years, and miraculously still tastes the same. Wilde’s trick? The play pretends to be two hours of meaningless, airy banter that takes place in some realm of artifice so divorced from reality, it’s almost science fiction, but at rock bottom, it’s about the mating rituals of the idle rich, and Wilde’s thesis is that a smart, stylish gentleman’s stock in trade is his ability to think fast on his feet. That’s a serviceable formula, hidden beneath the glitter and pyrotechnic wordplay.

If you’re looking for depth in Oscar Wilde, consider this. When you watch The Importance of Being Earnest, you’re watching a man about to plunge over the side of a cliff. Wilde paid for his fun. Shortly after Earnest opened, Oscar Wilde took a series of misteps in his private life, a life he’d always lived pretty close to the edge. Convicted of gross indecency, he was sentenced to two years of hard labor at Reading Gaol. Upon his release from prison, he went insane, and ended his life wandering around Paris under the name of Sebastian Melmoth, dying at the age of 46. He wrote two more things after The Importance of Being Earnest: De Profundis and Ballad of Reading Gaol. The old Oscar Wilde was gone—these two works skitter between incomprehensible and hair-raising.

Two points about this production in particular.

I don’t want to get all Marshall McLuhan-esque…oh who am I kidding. I absolutely do. The Michigan Theatre June 2 production isn’t the play itself. It’s “captured live in high-definition from the Broadway stage for limited screenings in movie theaters and performing arts centers across the U.S. and internationally.” Or, as we say here in the midwest, a movie.

As a fan of actual boots-on-the-ground theatre, I’m not completely on board with this new cultural vehicle in which famous New York theatrical events are beamed out to the provinces. UMS isn’t the only subscriber to this brave new world. Quality 16 frequently shows simulcasts of Metropolitan Opera productions, but somehow when it’s happening out there at the cineplex, it seems like it’s only replacing Die Hard in a Hail of Bullets, Part 16. This downtown UMS event seems a more significant harbinger of the future of live theatre.

And a note—a fairly unimportant one, I think—on the cast. This production’s much advertised selling point is Brian Bedford in the role of Lady Bracknell (and he’s also the director). Bedford’s a Stratford regular. It was there he created the role a few years ago, and a video clip suggests he’s as qualified as anyone to play the braying, camel-faced dowager. When you think of it, anyone in this role is going to need a wig and a corset, so being a natural-born woman doesn’t necessarily confer that much of an advantage. It’s a campy, juicy part to begin with, and Bedford by all accounts doesn’t take any extra liberties with it. He doesn’t even raise the pitch of his voice a single notch–that was probably the director’s idea, and he seems to take direction well!

EDITOR’S NOTE: While UMS is interested in increasing the opportunities to see theater in Ann Arbor through creative partnerships, we are in no way replacing our regular theater series with these screenings. Like Sally, we are also avid proponents of actual “boots-on-the-ground” theater, and look to high definition screenings as a way to bring high quality, professional productions to our area that might not otherwise tour to our neck of the woods.