Doing a Dahmer

Show #26: Don’t Feel: The Death of Dahmer, Mama Calizo’s Voice Factory & 1 1 11ArtGroup, February 27.

Evan Johnson as Jeffrey Dahmer. Photo by David Wilson

In the program notes for Don’t Feel: The Death of Dahmer, director Eric Wilcox describes some of the concerns he had about the one-man show about “corpse-fucking cannibal” Jeffrey Dahmer written and performed by Evan Johnson: “Why did he write this? Who did he think would come to see such a display? What did he hope to accomplish with this material?”

These are fair questions.  To tell the truth, I was sort of dreading this show, not because I’m squeamish but because it sounded like something that could go horribly awry.

But it doesn’t. Instead, with impressively sharp writing and a riveting performance, Johnson paints a brutal, sympathetic portrait of serial killer.

Static buzzes on the speakers as we enter the black-box space to find Johnson as Dahmer sitting on a mat in the corner of the room, unmoving in an orange prison jumpsuit, glasses and blood dripping down the far side of his face from a forehead wound. Standing around the stage are a naked male mannequin with a black plastic bag over its head, a worrisome refrigerator, and a pile of black trash bags with a hobby horse and other child’s furniture atop it. Projected on the black-painted brick back wall is the text: “IN 1994, A FEW DAYS AFTER THANKSGIVING, JEFFREY DAHMER DIED ALMOST INSTANTLY AS A FELLOW INMATE WHO CALLED HIMSELF “CHRIST” BATTERED HIS BRAINS OUT WITH AN IRON BAR.”

That’s our starting point. What is to follow takes place not just inside Dahmer’s head, but inside it as he is dying—the proverbial life flashing before his eyes. If that doesn’t sound like a troublesome setup for a play I don’t know what does, but Johnson pulls it off.

Sean Malroy’s sound designer sets the mood hauntingly from the very beginning. The static turns into Tiny Tim’s “Welcome to My Dream” then a tinkling music box tune as Johnson takes on the kindly voice of Dahmer’s grandmother, telling him that he’s special, that he’s an artist. This same theme will be taken up later by the relative of one of his victims, saying that they have to be careful to vigilant with their kids and teach them that “there are limits to their imagination”—“because that Dahmer was a creative bastard.”

That he was.  Living in his grandmother’s basement and working in a Milwaukee chocolate factory, Dahmer killed 17 men in the late 1980s and early ’90s, keeping their body parts in jars and the refrigerator, eating them and having sex with their corpses. Convicted in 1992, he was killed two years later at age 34 after having become a born-again Christian.

In short, there’s a lot to work with, all of it so grotesque that it takes a judicious hand to make it at all palatable. Just seeing the set and having Dahmer show us his collection of boiled-down roadkill skulls at the beginning is enough to start a knot growing in the pit of the stomach. Johnson describes just a few of Dahmer’s horrific crimes, enough to make the sound of a power drill make your skin crawl.

Freely jumping in time, the show goes back to Dahmer’s school days as the weird kid whose disturbing, disturbed jokes—like rolling around on the floor screaming “I’m a hot dog! Hey everybody, eat me!”—became known as “doing a Dahmer.” Johnson skillfully delineates different characters: the oblivious grandmother, his belittling father, a school bully, a concerned teacher, a flirty club kid and the gutted victims’ families. But it’s his chilling performance as Dahmer that really sticks with you: the shy pleading quality; the fixed, chilling stare; the lucid, remorseful confessions alternating with defensive, contemptuous rants saying that he’s not the one who’s sick—it’s everyone else.

Even the moments that are pitched high to the point of hysteria—what he does to that dummy, for example—are justified by the subject matter and set up skillfully. Touches that might in any other context seem over the top here don’t feel like exaggerations, and never once make you think “oh, please.”

As an experiment in getting inside Dahmer’s head, it’s impossible to know how accurate it is, but it’s an absolute success in the way it constructs a narrative to help you understand the thinking behind the unthinkable. The yearning to see or touch someone without them seeing you may be uncomfortably familiar to anyone who was ever a painfully shy adolescent, so it’s deeply disturbing to contemplate a fantasy that most people outgrow in middle school taken to such extremes.

The show’s only 70 minutes with no intermission, on the short side for a play, but mercifully so given the white-knuckle intensity of the material. I caught up with it on the very last night of its three-week run, which makes this belated praise of limited usefulness, because you can’t exactly run off and see it now.  It would be nice to see the show find some kind of continued life, because while it’s certainly not for the faint of heart, it’s a promising piece with a lot to chew over that deserves to be seen. You don’t want to look, but you can’t look away.

Don’t Feel: The Death of Dahmer played February 12-27 at Mama Calizo’s Voice Factory, 1519 Mission St., San Francisco.

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  1. Christina

    3 / 3 / 2010 11:59 pm

    I knew Evan when he himself was a slightly weird teenager (I say that in the most loving of ways), and he is a truly visionary artist. I hope to see a lot more where this came from!





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