That there are more serial killers in our entertainment media than the there are real-life victims doesn't bother anyone. In films, television and grocery-store novels, killers whose butchery is as lurid and lavished-over as the Grand Slams on a Denny's menu are, of course, caught or killed by dutiful authorities. This sates the popular fascination while soothing the popular nerves: Those evil bastards are out there, but their judgment awaits.
Surely such hyped-up nonsense alters our mood. A culture is shaped by the stories it tells itself, a point borne out by the idiots arguing that 24 demonstrates the necessity of torturing Muslims. We're the only major Western power still executing its civilians certainly CSI and our sentencing standards are steeped in similar blood lust.
Evil is evil, that's our guiding assumption. And evil we kill.
Once in a while, fortunately, a grown-up tackles this stuff.
Bryony Lavery's Frozen, now enjoying its regional debut at the Unicorn Theatre, is a challenging drama about two women struggling to comprehend an unrepentant killer pedophile.
Lavery's daring is threefold, in both thesis and structure. First, she is after evil itself. In the play, we see piece-of-work psychiatrist Agnetha (Cheryl Weaver) presenting evidence of abnormalities in the brains of violent criminals. In many cases, a criminal's pre-frontal cortex the judgment region, the super-ego is stunted, a frequent physiological byproduct of childhood abuse. Frozen tells us that, quite literally, BTK has never known right from wrong.
Second, Lavery's narrative deals not with a hero rolling up sleeves and vanquishing evil. Instead, it's a story of forgiveness that Christian trait that seems to be in short supply these days.
Frozen's hero is Peggy Friesen's Nancy, a mother who learns that her long-missing daughter was raped and killed by Ralph (Rusty Sneary), who is the subject of Agnetha's research. Early on, Peggy wishes Ralph dead; because we're the product of this culture, and because he says things like "The only thing I'm sorry about is that it's not legal, killing girls," we can't help but wish it, too.
But Frozen is set in England, a country unashamed of having had an enlightenment. Instead of being put to death, Ralph moulders in jail, interviewed sometimes by Agnetha and visited once, thrillingly by Nancy.
He does not languish unpunished. As Sneary makes clear, Ralph doesn't comprehend that his crimes were wrong the way he spits the word obviously after many statements alerts us that he assumes that others share his mindset. Still, after meeting Nancy, he blurts that, in committing his crime, he didn't actually hurt her daughter.
He's reassuring himself, not her. The play's most wrenching moments concern Ralph's comprehending, at last, the suffering he has wrought.
Lavery's third dangerous choice is structural. Only four times do her characters actually speak to one another. Mostly they're in monologue, which makes real-life sense how often would a victim's mother be sitting around with the killer? but the result is often dramatically stiff, despite the efforts of director Cynthia Levin and a big assist from David Kiehl's extraordinary sound design.
Further complicating things is that each of the principals is doled out roughly the same number of speeches. Outside of the facts she dispenses, psychiatrist Agnetha (who is saddled with an off-topic breakdown and affair) is singularly uncompelling. Weaver has some fine moments, especially when losing her composure midpresentation, but the part is a loser. We're told her interest in Ralph has become uncomfortably tender, but we never see it in a scene; when Weaver is called upon to kick off the play with a grand crying jag, she's unconvincing and we're unsure how to take it. Some laughs flare up, then die out.
Lavery famously lifted much of Agnetha's dialogue from a New Yorker profile of a similar psychiatrist. This is troubling beyond issues of intellectual property. She cut and pasted when she should have made the character live.
Friesen is strong and warm as Nancy, and Sneary is characteristically excellent. He dials back the vicious charisma of his star-making turn in Killer Joe but still winds up dominating what should have been a play of equals. With Agnetha not holding our attention, we're left like CSI viewers enchanted by the killer.
Still, the play musters real power, and its point is persuasive. Even though Lavery filched hunks of Frozen's strongest dialogue (including the one line quoted here) from writer Malcolm Gladwell, Gladwell did something remarkable upon discovering this. He forgave her. Then again, he was born in England.
Also coping with the bloodily inconceivable are the survivors in Lee Blessing's Fortinbras, the farcical follow-up to Hamlet. Put simply: Olathe Community Theatre, which hit last December with a blistering Assassins, thinks big and doesn't stumble. Director Art Suskin sends a spirited cast led by ace clown Doogin Brown as a trench-coated, limp-Afroed Fortinbras running around Elsinore, a haunted castle that, Fortinbras notes, inspires its denizens to talk to themselves. After Fortinbras assumes the throne, he explains away Shakespeare's slaughter with a story more believable than the truth, only to be haunted by the ghosts of Claudius, Gertrude, Hamlet, et al. Brown excels at shrieky incredulity and is inventive in his comic posing. He may look here like TV's Screech, but he's exponentially more funny. Also grand are Roger May's Ozric, all fluty tones and paisleyed bloomers, and Tiffany Lee's horny Ophelia. She and Brown get down to some spirited necrophilia, and she triumphs in the play's most hysterical moment: a scream from beyond the grave that still quakes through me now, as I type this.