A brief stay in purgatory

Had I done some homework, I probably would have skipped it altogether, but I'm not so different than you, or the many in the full house at Zellerbach Hall on Friday who were lured by the intriguing title, unusual concept and the presence of a star known for taking risks. But I didn't. In fact, it wasn't until I was there did I learn of a DVD and a long trail of online material which could have prevented me from seeing The Infernal Comedy: Confessions of a Serial Killer. Perhaps I'm just feeling a bit misanthropic this week, but I don't think so. On paper, the idea sounded great.

John Malkovich portrays the Austrian serial killer Jack Unterweger, who spent fifteen years in prison for murdering a woman with her underwear and was then released to a public who believed him to be rehabilitated. However, after his release Unterweger went on to kill quite a few more women in the same method as his original victim before he was caught in Florida and decided to hang himself in his cell rather than face another long imprisonment in America.

Also present are two sopranos, Louise Fribo and Martene Grimson, both of whom have extensive experience in Europe, and the Musica Angelica Baroque Orchestra- a southern California ensemble led by Martin Haselbock. A desk and chair are present center stage, upon which are small stacks of Unterweger's book, a lamp and some papers. The orchestra is onstage behind the desk, everything is dimly lit, and that's all there is for a "set."

The concept is the audience is an audience at a posthumous book/signing by Unterweger where he shills his book and offers anecdotes about his dirty deeds. The sopranos interrupt his monologue/performance to sing arias, mostly from the 18th century, meant to represent the feelings and thoughts of Unterweger's victims, countering the claims of his unreliable narration. Untergweger's intent is to charm and mislead, to present an illusion of honest revelation while holding back the final truth about himself. Imagine Tony Robbins as Jack the Ripper and you have an idea.

Malkovich is brilliant in the role, at times engaging with the audience to biting effect and is captivating to watch as he prowls from one side of the stage to another in a white suit and black shirt with white polka dots, looking completely like a self-satisfied sleaze. Fribo and Grimson were adequate accomplices, and the orchestra played well under conductor Adrian Kelly, but the whole doesn't come together despite the promising concept and even an actor with Mallovich's gifts can't salvage it.

Many of the arias are far too long and don't work as dramatic set pieces in their own right (at least not in the hands of Fribo and Grimson), so they soon become a drag on the shows pacing, making it feel much longer than an hour and forty-five minutes. As the pace drags, it began to seem self-indulgent to me, as if Unterweger, knowing he's not going anywhere (since he's already dead), just wants to have the audience to keep him company for as long as possible. At an hour, it may have been intriguing, but it soon began to feel like an extended stay in purgatory. There were a small number of walk-outs, and I considered it myself, but stayed to the end, where many in the house seemed to enjoy it all by responding with a hearty ovation.

The show was presented by Cal Performances and is currently touring.