BWW Reviews: Molotov Theatre Group Horrifies with Macabre NORMAL at DCAC
For theatregoers leery of cheery froth on stage---perky, feel-good family shows like The Lion King or Matilda---Molotov Theatre Group's production of Anthony Neilson's NORMAL at DC Arts Center, should be just the antidote for such sentimentality. Dark and sinister, Director Jay D. Brock's NORMAL falls perfectly into Molotov's mission to preserve the Grand Guignol French Theatre of Horror (which translates as "The Theater of the Big Puppet"), which operated in Paris from 1897 until 1962. For those unfamiliar with this particular institution, its bloody, naturalistic lineage draws from Shakespeare's gruesome "Titus Andronicus" to the shockingly violent "splatter films" like "Blood Feast." With a heydey between the two world wars, the theatre's form specialized in portraying the lumpenproletariat who were deemed unsuitable material for the legitimate stage: prostitutes, criminals, street urchins, and others deep in the margins of Parisian society.
Molotov founding member Alex Zavistovich plays the signature role of serial killer Peter Kürten, the "Vampire of Düsseldorf" who terrorized this German city with the same ruthlessness of London's more famous Jack the Ripper. Imprisoned for much of his life for theft and arson, Kürten, horrifically, committed scores of brutal murders between his incarcerations. Finally caught--and eventually executed---for these crimes, NORMAL tracks the twisted dance between the killer and his skilled, though very young, defense attorney, Justus Wehner.
The play traces the evolving relationship between Kürten and Wehner. Dominated by Kürten, the scenes chart the lawyer's efforts to glean exculpatory backstory from his client, and cement his claim of an insanity defense. Stories of Kürten's childhood as the fifth of thirteen children in a desperately poor and abusive family living in one room, and witnessing, up close and personal, all manner of sexual aggression by his alcoholic father on his mother and sisters. Such aggression Kürten was to emulate in his long criminal career.
Zavistovich gives the butcher a casual arrogance and condescension fitting such a monstrous human being. Indeed, Zavistovich's Kürten revels in his monstrosity, parading it before his unseen public and anticipated jurors. Yet Kürten, the script frequently tells us, possessed an uncanny appeal to women of all types---much like the executed serial killer Ted Bundy in the US back in the 70s---though the steeliness of Zavistovich's portrayal belied this seductiveness to women.
As the 20-something defense attorney Justus Wehner, Brian McDermott brings a fresh-faced innocence to the role; one has no difficulty buying the young man's inexperience in matters of the heart or body. Wehner is, however, a gifted attorney despite his youth, and McDermott's Wehner takes refuge in this legal frame, retreating again and again to the perfunctory lawyer tasks at hand. The spareness of Molotov's set (set construction by Morgan Sexton) and the ominous lighting design by Pete Vargo and eerie composition and sound design by Gregg Martin give the young attorney no where to hide; and the inevitable colonization of his psyche by the predatory killer plays out before our eyes. McDermott evokes Justus' newcomer status to his profession, bringing a formalism and guardedness to the role.
Joining the two men and portraying both Kürten's wife Eva, a former prostitute, as well as several of his victims, is Elizabeth Darby. She maintains a stylized allegiance to the cryptic narratives of her characters, engaging in tightly choreographed waltzes and marionette-like representations of the gruesome entanglements with the monstrous Kürten. As his wife Eva, Darby is forthright, devoted utterly to her despicable husband, and supposedly ignorant of his hideous deeds. Her former life on the streets, however, lend authority to the couple's alliance.
Manipulated by Kürten, Justus and Eva engage in a lurid entanglement of deflowering the young lawyer, and Justus discovers the dark underbelly of his own consciousness.
Crisp projections of minimalist captions move the linear narrative forward episodically. Suggestive period costumes by Libby Dasbach keep the setting chronologically appropriate, and symbolic props neatly hung in a row on the multi-functional platform box punctuate the story. Fight choreography by Alex Zavistovich keeps the tension high.
As directed by Jay D. Brock, NORMAL is a dark, unblinking plunge into the nether regions of human depravity. It is not for the faint of heart, though the cleanly executed, if twisted, choreography by choreographer Sarah Frances Williams lace through the production, bringing some wicked humor to this macabre tale.
Advisories: Violent subject matter, profanity and graphic language. Running time: 70 minutes without an intermission. Molotov Theatre Group at DC Arts Space, 2438 18th Street, NW, Washington, DC, 20009, through March 30, 2014. Tickets and information: http://molotovtheatre.org.