Friday, Oct. 8, 2010

Unexpected Depth: Alchemist's MURDER CASTLE

Alchemist Theatre’s Intelligent, Provocative October Horror Show

By Russ Bickerstaff
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The only new theatre show of the weekend welcomes a full-weekend of sell-out audiences. Alchemist Theatre’s Murder Castle: The Chronicle of H. H. Holmes opened a five-week run last night.

All performances begin at 7:30 pm. The Alchemist website suggests that the show’s attendees show-up around 7 or 7:10 pm. An excellent idea—the play itself is Shakespearian in length, but the atmosphere in the Alchemist’s Bay View Lounge is fun atmosphere--well worth lurking around in. Music, costuming and such help to induct audiences into the 1890’s period feel of the play. There’s an opportunity to play poker with Patrick Schmitz in character as outlaw Marion Hedgepeth. Chips won over poker are good for drinks at the bar. Between this and the basement entrance to the theatre next door, Kopec and company have carved-out a full-evening’s entertainment. This is the first October show that Kopec has written. It's Erica Case's first time as director. She's something of an outsider, but she's working with a really good cast here. Her day job is in human resources. I'd asked her if there were any parallels. There are. (Not surprising.)   

One of my few beers in the past couple of months was an East Side Dark. The prescription eye drops I’ve been taking for the past couple of months (steroids and antibiotics) made my first beer in some time taste appropriately medicinal. I picked-up the room key that was my ticket to the show at the bar and walked into the basement to enter the theatre.

The basement is decked-out like a cross between a haunted house and a museum piece. Those of us who are familiar with the story of Dr. H.H. Holmes get a quick refresher course in the background of the title character, Chicago in the 1890’s and the basics of the 1893 World’s Colombian Exposition in Chicago. A small row of theatre seats site at the end of a series of text-filled placards. There’s a video projected at a screen in front of the seats that serves as a brief documentary about the Expo narrated by Schmitz.

The show itself is disturbingly provocative. As it is the third October horror show that Alchemist has done in as many years, I’d expected the show to be a competently written 19th century period psychological horror drama well executed by a really good cast. What I didn’t expect was a strikingly deep historical allegory about the beginning of the 20th century. Yes, this is the story of a man who confessed to killing over 20 people in Chicago in the l890’s, but the real horror here is about the kind of culture that sort of behavior came out of. Nate Press, who plays the serial killer, has a remarkably dark scene in conversation with a victim before he has his way with her, but Liz Whitford (in the role of his first wife) has an equally disturbing monologue spoken to her baby that shows a kind of corruption in the hopeful innocence of passive complicity. In a city the size of Chicago, 27 people don’t get killed by a single man without people knowing about it and failing to act.

In a modern world that was born out of the 1890’s, the modern American is guilty of an endless parade of such complicities. . . .and this is really only scratching the surface of the social commentary of a remarkably inspired and insightful play.There's so much else going on here, including the compelling cultural allegory of Holmes’ interactions with an emerging, young intellectual cleverly played with admirable depth by Grace DeWolf.

Yes, Murder Castle goes on a little bit longer than it should and loses a little dramatic impact along the way, but this is a refreshingly intellectual horror show with a depth to it only found in the more sophisticated works in the genre.

The Alchemist Theatre’s Murder Castle: The Chronicle of H. H. Holmes runs now through November 6th. The show is sold-out through November 4th. As of this writing, there are still seats available the 4th, 5th and 6th of November.

A concise review of the show runs in the next issue of the Shepherd-Express.      

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