Infernal is the word for music-theater piece starring John Malkovich as serial killer
The Luminato Festival in Toronto, where I'm spending a few diverting days, has not opened with the cheeriest subject matter imaginable.
Among the festival's initial productions: The world premiere of the oratorio "Dark Star Requiem," which addresses the toll of AIDS, and the North American premiere of a music-theater piece called "The Infernal Comedy, “ which bears the subtitle "Confessions of a Serial Killer."
I caught the latter on an appropriately drizzly Saturday night; the atmosphere was even gloomier inside Massey Hall, despite the occasional laughs generated by John Malkovich in a typically intense, extraordinarily creepy performance as Austrian Jack Unterweger. This real-life murderer preyed on women, especially prostitutes. Most of his killings were committed after being paroled in 1990 from a 15-year sentence for a 1976 murder and being lionized as a reformed criminal. He committed suicide before facing trial again in Austria.
You can admire the daring of the concept for this show, created and directed by Michael Sturminger, but it would take considerable effort, I imagine, to like it. The Unterweger character is introduced as if at a lecture/reading, part of a book tour (he's actually already dead, which puts a new spin on "ghost writer").
Interspersed with his monologues are
soprano arias by Vivaldi, Mozart, Haydn and Weber -- all with texts on scorned lovers, cruelty, deceit, murderous thoughts, etc. The vocal soloists stand in for the Unterweger's victims, at one point being strangled (well, simulated) with bras, one of the killer's methods.
I'm all for edgy subject matter and toying with convention, but there's always a thin line between simply portraying and somehow celebrating or sympathizing with evildoers when they are put onstage or into films as the main focus. "The Infernal Comedy" keeps going over the line, making Unteweger too much the ingratiating fellow, crude but fun, like some stand-up comedian who gets foul-mouthed every now and then for a cheap laugh, but is still just such an entertaining guy. The murders are treated partly as entertainment, too, in a way, and the net effect is simply distasteful, rather than insightful.
That said, Malkovich couldn't have given it a better shot, with a scrupulous Austrian accent (he should, however, have given "California" the full Schwarzenegger pronunciation) and an ability to convey the character’s ever-simmering mania and pathetic self-justification.
The musical end of things was excellent, thanks to a nimble, expressive period instrument ensemble, the Vienna Academy Orchestra, led with assurance and style by Martin Haselbock; and two eloquent sopranos, Bernarda Bobro and Marie Arnet. In the end, it felt like a very long, uncomfortable evening.
BALTIMORE SUN FILE PHOTO