Footnotes to Evil

Alchemist’s “House of Horrors”

Aaron Kopec's second play about H.H. Holmes gets into the serial killer's head.

By - Apr 29th, 2013 02:52 pm

F2-HouseOfHorrorsSpring is in the air, and the thoughts of Alchemist Theater’s Aaron Kopec turn—as they often do—to grisly murder. House of Horrors, the latest show in Alchemist’s “Year of Fear,” re-visits the scene of Murder Castle, Kopec’s 2010 telling of the horrific tale of “America’s first serial killer,” H.H. Holmes; this new play promises to “explore more of the who and why of what drove the diabolical madman.”

Holmes’ story certainly seems rich enough for two dramatizations. This sociopathic con artist ran insurance scams to fund a block-wide hotel on Chicago’s South side, built to lure dozens, probably more, victims to gruesome deaths in the “castle’s” gas chamber, suffocation room, dissection table, torture rack, and incinerating oven. Apparently Holmes stripped his victim’s bodies of flesh and sold the skeletons to medical schools; a gruesome tale, to be sure.

The problem is, it’s hard to write plays based on history without giving the feeling of checking off boxes. House of Horrors is like a William Castle B. movie, promising lurid thrills but turning out to be a workmanlike straight drama with a macabre premise. For better or worse, Kopec  mostly just hints at the details of Holmes’ activities. If you missed the previous play on this topic, you can’t help feeling that they left out all the good stuff and we’re just getting the footnotes this time around.

But assuming knowledge of the horrific details, Kopec generates suspense nicely. While Holmes chats amiably with his victims to be, we have the feeling of watching a happy swimmer while knowing a shark prowls below. In a few moments of dark humor, young women practically advertise themselves as victims: “I’m so alone, if I vanished today, nobody would notice.” But it’s hard to get from Lee Rowley’s portrayal that Holmes was reportedly a preternaturally charismatic charmer who claimed to be able to hypnotize anybody to do anything. (Ladies must have really gone for long, droopy fake mustaches in those days.)

Kopeck follows history in showing young Herman Mudgett (a.k.a H.H. Holmes) raised by a religious mother and a cruel father. As the story goes, bullies terrified the boy with a doctor’s anatomical skeleton, supposedly triggering his life-long fascination with taking people apart. Kopec inserts a far less dramatic trauma, having his father crush the skull of the boy’s favorite cat. We see the boy, while his father is beating his mother, look over the kitty cadaver and grin fiendishly; a demon is evidently born. As origin stories go, this is less than overwhelming.

For the rest of the play, Holmes younger evil self, played by the talented, if not-very-scary Sebastian Weigman, haunts the adult self. As played by Rowley, Holmes seems an empty husk. He sleepwalks through his life until someone stands in his way, at which point his evil boy-self speaks to him, sometimes through his own mouth, rather in the way of J.R.R. Tolkein’s Smeagol/Gollum. As a dramatic depiction of psychosis this is plausible; maybe if Kopec’s two scripts were merged we’d feel we’re getting the whole story.

To its credit, House of Horrors shows us the pain at the heart of Holmes’ madness, even if its explanation comes off as a bit facile. We can’t really know the souls of mass killers like Tamarlan Tsarnaev or Adam Lanza; it’s the mystery that draws our curiosity. And the mystery remains.

House of Horrors: a Chronicle of H.H. Holmes, 7:30 p.m. Thursdays, Fridays & Saturdays through May 11 at the Alchemist Theatre. Tickets are $17 via the Alchemist website and $20 at the door (if available).

Categories: Theater

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