THEATER REVIEW: BERKELEY
Show #101: The Infernal Comedy, Cal Performances, October 21.
By Sam Hurwitt
For a dead serial killer, Jack Unterweger is a charming guy. In a white suit and sunglasses, he wanders the stage cracking jokes and flirting with the audience as he plays coy with them about his life and crimes, knowing full well that they’re what makes him interesting to the general public. He’s all the more charming in The Infernal Comedy: Confessions of a Serial Killer because it’s John Malkovich playing him. Having played Vienna, London and Los Angeles, the show came to UC Berkeley’s Zellerbach Hall on Friday for one night only, courtesy of Cal Performances.
Unterweger became an author in prison in his native Austria, while serving a life sentence for strangling a teenage prostitute with her own brassiere in 1974. Having become a cause celebre in the literary community as a model of rehabilitation, he was released as soon as he was eligible for parole after 15 years in prison. Upon his 1990 release he became a working reporter, novelist, poet and playwright, and also went back to his favorite hobby of murdering prostitutes with their own bras. He managed to kill at least 9 or 11 more before he was caught again, and this time he was able to keep tabs on the status of the investigation into the murders by interviewing the police as a reporter. After being convicted and sentenced to life without possibility of parole in 1994, Unterweger hanged himself with a rope made from shoelaces and a cord from tracksuit pants.
So Jack is dead in The Infernal Comedy, but he doesn’t make a big deal about it. He mentions his death as one of many things that happened in his life, but the play doesn’t dwell on questions like what he’s doing here talking to us if he’s dead.
Jack’s here on a tour to promote his postmortem tell-all book (“ca-ching, ca-ching,” he says when he mentions it), noting that it could only have been written after his death because “I never wrote a single truthful word as long as I lived.”
Although Jack apologizes for his poor English and thick Austrian accent, Malkovich doesn’t really attempt the accent aside from some odd pronunciation and word choices, and ultimately sounds more Brooklynite than Austrian. But that doesn’t affect one’s enjoyment of his performance at all, because Malkovich’s Jack exudes so much sly charisma that he has the crowd in the palm of his hand. Jack is well aware of his charm, partly because, for whatever reason, there are always women who are drawn to murders. Part of it he chalks up to his name, whether you call him Jack, John or Johann. “If you wear this name, women will love you or hate you,” he says.
You can’t help but notice that there’s a sizeable orchestra of about 30 players onstage with him. Conducted by Adrian Kelly, Musica Angelica Baroque Orchestra deftly plays 18th and 19th century music between stretches of monologue. It’s one of many things Jack says was his editor’s idea and that he doesn’t particularly approve of. “I normally don’t like this kind of music,” he says. “It makes me nervous.”
Also his editor’s idea are the two sopranos who keep coming out to deliver heartrending arias in Italian, symbolizing the various women in his life. Translated in supertitles, the pieces are by Vivaldi, Mozart, Beethoven, Haydn and Carl Maria von Weber (plus some instrumental pieces by Christoph Willibald Gluck and Luigi Boccherini), but they’re always thematically appropriate to the story Jack’s telling. Louise Frido and Martene Grimson sing superbly and affectingly, even when Jack’s molesting them, throttling them or otherwise making things difficult.
Naturally, the show becomes much grimmer as it goes on, and Jack’s mood darkens accordingly. He complains about more and more things, from the Mac laptop he’s supposed to use to point out inaccuracies in his Wikipedia page (albeit mistakes based on lies he told in his autobiography) to the crummy translations in the supertitles.
The Infernal Comedy is written and directed by Michael Sturminger, and it’s impressive how well he makes this offbeat hodgepodge work. The Unterweger story makes up only about half of the show, which is just shy of two hours without intermission, but the musical interludes are touching in their own right and cleverly played against by Malkovich without undermining them too much. It doesn’t get into Unterweger’s story too deeply, and that’s by design—he told us right at the outset that he’s a liar, after all—but the tantalizing taste it gives us is tremendously entertaining, more so than an operatic evening with a mass murderer has any right to be.