The Infernal Comedy: Confessions of a Serial Killer
By Michael Sturminger
Directed by Michael Sturminger
Starring John Malkovich
Zellerbach Hall, Berkeley, Calif. (and other venues worldwide)
October 21, 2011
More and more people are getting into hybrids these days. Why not the actor John Malkovich? His new show, now touring the country and the globe, “The Infernal Comedy: Confessions of a Serial Killer” is a hybrid of speech, spoken word, opera and instrumental music — with a bit of slapstick comedy and graphic horror thrown in. The music is Baroque, well played at this performance by the early music ensemble Musica Angelica, conducted by Adrian Kelly. The two sopranos, who sing arias by Vivaldi, Mozart, Beethoven, Haydn and von Weber — and sing them beautifully — are Louise Fribo and Martene Grimson.
But Malkovich is in the driver’s seat. As indicated by the title, he plays Jack Unterweger, an Austrian murderer of women (he has sex with them and then strangles them with their bras), who is convicted, incarcerated for 15 years, paroled and eventually becomes something of a Viennese celebrity. And then, at the height of his fame, he begins to kill again. Malkovich is his usual sensational self. After all, who plays creepy better than he does? Well maybe Steve Buscemi, but he’s busy on television these days.
Malkovich, who began his career as a founding member of Chicago’s famed Steppenwolf Theatre and went on to make more than 80 movies, professes a long fascination with Unterweger’s story and the dichotomy between fiction and truth. He begins the show with a comedy routine, riffing on book promotions (ostensibly back from the dead, he is hawking Unterweger’s autobiography “Purgatory” on behalf of the publisher), Austrian accents, Arnold Schwarzenegger, romance and parking in Los Angeles. Most of the jokes are pretty lame but the actor does exude kind of a manic charm, which, if you believe in his account, the real Unterweger had to spare. But who can believe anything here? And that’s a major premise of the show.
Fribo and Grimson drift in and out, singing their songs, at first as straight concert performers and, later, as various women in Unterweger’s life — and evidently there were a lot of them. Eventually they begin to interact with Malkovich. He brings them flowers and a chocolate cake. He loves them and then he strangles them, right on stage. At this point a few people walked out but whether it was the music or the murders that got to them, we shall never know.
The music is indeed beautiful, if you like the genre. Unterweger/Malkovich notes that he is not a fan. This critic would echo that. Some of the arias are extremely long and repetitive, particularly Haydn’s “Berenice, che fai.” Even when they are accompanied by physical action (see aforementioned flowers, cakes and murderings), they tend to bog down the proceedings. They are, I repeat, beautifully sung, but, while enjoying that aspect, one wants to yell “Get on with the show, already.”
In the end, “The Infernal Comedy” is more of a theatrical experiment than a real show. Malkovich is terrific but, essentially, what he does is recount Unterweger’s history, from impoverished childhood to the grave (he hanged himself upon being returned to prison in 1994) which, if you got there early, you could have read in the program. Interspersing it with comic shtick and Baroque music doesn’t make the story any less horrifying. But, there’s no accounting for taste and, if you are into serial killers and/or Baroque music, go for it. Except it’s already gone. To Austin, Texas, according to reports. Maybe it’s not an accident that this production seems to specialize in one-night stands — just as Jack Unterweger did. The house is packed on the first night but after that, word gets around.