La Barraca ’90

at Blue Rider Theatre

If you dwell on the crimes of serial killers long enough, you get beyond revulsion and denial to a sense of the absurdity of trying to explain them at all. The jury in Jeffrey Dahmer’s recent insanity trial had to choose between the idea that human butchery, necrophilia, and cannibalism were the aberrant activities of a diseased mind and the idea that Dahmer was merely evil-as-usual. Some choice.

Howard Brenton’s 1969 drama Christie in Love explores the absurdity of trying to explain the actions of a badly twisted mind. It goes on to imply–as much by what it conceals as by what it declares–that judgment is even more pointless than explication.

Brenton offers a dark vision of the crimes of John Reginald Christie, a self-effacing serial killer who over a period of 13 years murdered and raped eight women, including his wife. Christie’s sexual repression exploded in murder–usually strangulation followed by rape. He buried the bodies in his garden, in the walls of his apartment, and in the case of his wife under the floorboards. Though Christie, like Dahmer, pleaded insanity, the gambit failed: he was hanged in July 1953, a mere four months after the first corpses had been unearthed.

Brenton reduces the tragedy to a series of Beckett-bleak confrontations between a meek Christie, a klutzy constable, and the constable’s superior, a sinister inspector. The two contemptible figures of law and order first appear onstage crawling out from beneath a huge grassy mound, the inspector glibly ordering the constable to look for women’s bones while the flunky instead stumbles onto scraps of salacious limericks.

The lawmen slowly lift the huge mound to reveal body parts. The taunting inspector summons Christie for an inconclusive, one-sided interrogation, during which it becomes clear that somewhere between the law’s flippant condemnation of Christie’s crimes (“You gotta keep love in bounds,” urges the inspector) and Christie’s own tortured rambling lies a perverse and unplumbed gulf.

Christie, a cold fish with a castration complex, mutters about how women threaten him with their easy sexuality (several of his victims were prostitutes), how he was condemned for jerking off and reviled as “No Dick” Christie, and how he became obsessed with private parts, even keeping his victims’ pubic hair in a tin. In return for these confessions, Christie is mocked by leering puppets and by the constable, grotesquely costumed as a prostitute.

The lines spoken by the blundering cops–who blandly compare Christie’s crimes to pilfering handbags and torturing kittens–contain less feeling than Christie’s incoherent laments. After Christie is symbolically hanged by being hoisted up in a harness, the action returns to the garden mound, from which a bogeyman Christie emerges, one more skeleton in his own boneyard. No matter the sentence, the crime remains a mystery.

Ultimately Christie in Love sheds little light on its killer or on the shortfalls of the law. It evokes neither the demons that twisted Christie nor the repugnance he triggered in others. Its stab at psychological explanations is halfhearted, and the sick humor of the sight gags and gallows wit wears thin. Besides, Dahmer’s crimes are just too recent for us to muster sympathy for the devil.

Performed by actors of the Feral Theater and directed by Val Paraskiv and Tom Zanarini, La Barraca ’90’s local premiere is as rich an exploration as this script deserves, though the clumsy set changes and often-glacial line delivery slow things down.

But the performances, reminiscent of Monty Python, carry weight. Brian Jude Leahy’s inspector menaces Christie with amoral abandon, a bullying contrast to Tim O’Shea’s winsome, confused constable. And though Mark Talley’s looks belie the mousy, 55-year-old Christie’s deprivations, he makes a moving, oddly attractive killer, shrinking into a dark night of the soul that’s almost palpable.

Unfortunately, the cumbersome set, created by the directors, takes up too much stage time to change, drawing more attention than its symbolic value warrants, and the body fragments and puppets carry a scary expressionistic overkill without helping the script’s own formless energy take shape.