Matthew Reddin

The Alchemist puts the Ripper’s victims in focus

"The Canonical Five" is not just a scary play. It's an astonishing tableau depicting the lives of five women hunted by a madman.

By - Jan 26th, 2013 03:21 pm

The Canonical Five of Jack the Ripper is meant to be a scary play. It’s not. It’s more than that.

Yes, it scares, startles and frightens, but the show Aaron Kopec has brought to the Alchemist Theatre stage for its “Year of Fear” is too complex and moving for such a pedestrian adjective as “scary.”

A new take on their 2008 production Ripper, The Canonical Five focuses in on the London neighborhood of Whitechapel in the late 1800’s, just as Jack the Ripper is beginning his killing spree. Where Ripper focused on Jack, though, this play focuses on the five prostitutes who can be confirmed as his victims: Polly Nichols (Liz Whitford), Annie Chapman (Sammich Dittloff), Elizabeth Stride (Erin E.), Catherine Eddowes (Libby Amato) and Mary Kelly (Anna Figlesthaler).

They are names now that have blurred into history, recognizable only by Ripperologists, but in telling their untold story Kopec taps into a near-magic resonance that elevates the play from spooky tale to haunting tableau. Not that the play is nonfiction – Kopec’s taken the story far from the scarce facts that exist, and there’s a handful of anachronisms spattered throughout that occasionally take you out of the play. Kopec’s impressionistic style muddles these, creating an atmosphere of dread and instability that might not be entirely historical, but is surely close to what was felt by these women and those around them.

Sure, there’s a little implied speculation of who the Ripper might be; syphilitic, slightly mad, knife-brandishing Thomas (Randall T. Anderson) seems like a good fit, as does Francis (Harold Loeffler-Bell), the American who bursts into rage at even the suggestion of sleeping with a “filthy whore.” But since the Ripper’s identity doesn’t matter to his victims, Kopec simply makes him a cloaked force who rushes in on occasion and pulls one screaming woman after another offstage. It’s a stylized choice that works well in an already-imprecise production.

That leaves room to focus in on the “canonical five” themselves. Each of the five women does an excellent job with their parts, plumbing the depths of their characters. But the stars are Amato and Figlesthaler. They fulfill opposing roles in the sisterhood: Figlesthaler’s Mary is a beacon of hope, already trying to convince the prostitutes to support each other before the Ripper begins striking and ultimately responsible for holding them together when he does, while Amato’s Catherine puts on a brave face but has a dark self-loathing at her core which leads her quickly to anger and depair. It’s a push-and-pull that would be dynamic enough without the heightened intensity of the Ripper.

Perhaps my favorite moment from the play, in fact, has little to do with Jack the Ripper at all. It features Catherine, several drinks in, mourning the circumstances of her life. She can read, she says, and basically ran her husband’s mill for him, and is smarter and more deserving of success than all the men in the pub with her. Yet there she is, a prostitute hunted by a madman—maybe even a madman who cannot live up to the expectations of society she would so eagerly snatch up, if given the chance.

It doesn’t matter how many women scream before the curtain comes down, or how dark the fog around the lamplight seems – any show that can pull off moments like that with as much grace and power as The Canonical Five is not an ordinary horror play – it’s a terribly astonishing one.

The Canonical Five of Jack the Ripper, also featuring Sharon Neiman-Koebert, Kurtis Witzlsteiner and Drake Dorfner, runs through February 9 at the Alchemist Theatre in Bay View. Tickets are $20 at the door and $17 online.

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