Michael Van Duzer Reviews - Theater

Germans may know the name Peter Kurten, and something about the infamous crime spree which earned him the name of “The Dusseldorf Vampire.” If Americans know him at all, it will probably be as a footnote to Fritz Lang’s classic film “M.” The film, which premiered in 1931, the same year as Kurten’s execution, was never intended to be a factual dramatization of Kurten’s life. But “M’s” proximity to the crimes, as well as its undeniable artistry, earned the man who inspired the script, an odd adjacent-fame.

In the early 90’s, Scottish playwright Anthony Nielson revisited the life of Peter Kurten for his play Normal. Though the play has been quite popular and had numerous productions, The Vagrancy is, apparently, producing the West Coast premiere of Normal during the Hollywood Fringe Festival.

Director David Mancini has transformed the playing space into an approximation of a Weimar, Germany theatrical venue--one that Kurten might have visited. The setting is simple. Battered display cases line the walls, a well-used scrim defines the upper level of the playing area, a couple of chairs, and a step unit pretty much complete the mis-en-scene. If the look isn’t screaming “Brechtian” to you, the strains of Kurt Weill should clue you in quickly.

Despite using the real names, Nielson isn’t any more interested in a documentary-style drama than Lang was. He is much more concerned with probing the darkness that hides in all of us. Justus Wehner (Arthur Keng) is hired to defend Peter Kurten (Steve Madar). Wehner’s jail cell interviews with Kurten will reveal a biography of pain, abuse, and horror that will shatter the lawyer’s complacency and take him to terrifying places he never dreamed possible. Carolyn Deskin completes the cast, playing Frau Kurten and several victims.

Mancini skillfully guides the trio through a visceral and highly theatrical staging of the play. He makes effective use of the entire stage, and skillfully capitalizes on the eerily looming shadows cast when backlighting actors behind the scrim. But perhaps the most indelible visual is watching normal objects like a hammer and a pair of scissors become instruments of pain and death.

The cast members leap into their roles with absolute conviction. Madar is a surprisingly personable and charismatic Kurten. Certainly, charm would be needed to lure his victims and, of course, the shock of his casual revelations about the crimes are all the more potent when our guard is down. Keng’s Wehner clearly charts the lawyer’s journey from confident savior to the haunted survivor of Kurten’s manipulations. Deskin makes sure that neither Kurten’s wife, nor his victims, are seen as docile lambs to the slaughter.

Lounge Theatre    June 4 – 24, 2017