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Wednesday, Aug. 20, 2008

Murder Mystery

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  In the fall of 1888, a series of five murders took place in London's Whitechapel district. Newspapers referred to the murderer, whose victims were all prostitutes, as "Jack the Ripper." The killer was never caught. The drama of this serial killer has been adapted to stage and screen numerous times over the years. He returns to the Milwaukee stage next month as Alchemist Theatre launches the premiere of Ripper!-a new play written and directed by Jackie Benka. Benka's Roaring Gemini Productions is co-producing the show.

  Mark A. Lonteen plays Frederick Abberline, a police detective in charge of the investigation. With no other recognizable policemen in the cast, Lonteen is going to have the challenge of bringing across the investigation of the murders almost single-handedly. Having performed onstage numerous times all over the county for a number of years, Lonteen certainly has the kind of experience needed to hold the play together on the legal end.

  Another telling addition to the cast is Briana Ziebell as Mary Pearcey, who was convicted of the murder of her husband's lover two years after the Ripper killings. There is a theory that she may have been involved in the Ripper murders, but Benka's script could take the story in any direction, as the Alchemist is promising a "new twist on the classic story."

  The aim here is not to bring to the stage anything terribly deep. Benka and the Alchemist Theatre have put a great deal of emphasis on immersing audiences in the feel of late-19th-century London. The actresses playing the victims will be lounging around the bar before the show. Audience members exchange their tickets for a handful of shillings, which are then used to "hire" one of the prostitutes to take them to their seats in the theater. They may not look exactly like 19th-century prostitutes (these are aspiring local actresses…weathered appearances and missing teeth seem unlikely) but it should be interesting being taken to your seat by someone who will be "killed" at some point in the next hour or so.

  In such a small and intimate space, a tightly woven atmosphere is something Alchemist Theatre has an opportunity to excel at. With a set featuring forced perspective and video projection, the visual feel of the setting will be further enhanced by a rich soundscape pumped into the theater. The atmospheric sounds of London by gaslight mix with a score composed by Alchemist co-founder Aaron Kopec.

  Working on sound design for a local theater production can be kind of strange. Kopec speaks of walking back and forth across his living room "studio" clacking a pair of cups together to emulate the sound of horses. The full immersion of countless little elements like hoof beats should resonate quite well when sutured together in the Alchemist Theatre when it opens Ripper! on Sept. 11.

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