Prop Theatre

My favorite murderers tend to be the really squirrelly ones–the forlorn maniacs with the nightmare MOs and the sick-pure gothic delusions. Sure, Ted Bundy holds a certain interest as a paradigm for the Reaganite 80s–glib, handsome, media-savvy young careerist outside, lethal misogynist fiend inside. But for barefaced voyeuristic fascination, I guess I prefer an honest monster like Ed Gein, the do-it-yourselfer who ate parts of his victims and turned the rest into attractive household knickknacks.

Unfortunately, Ed’s not one of the dozen multiple murderers profiled in Prop Theatre’s Mass Murder. But there are plenty of kindred souls present: Gibbering grotesques like David Berkowitz, the Son of Sam murderer, who claimed to get demonic messages from his neighbor’s dog. Dark angels like Richard Ramirez, the Nightstalker, who seems to have considered himself a kind of nocturnal spirit of predation. Snapped cords like James Huberty, who carried out the McDonald’s massacre.

Some of them are depicted as out-and-out meshuggeners. Dressed in a hospital smock and scraping the cream out of an Oreo cookie, Jonathan Lavan’s Berkowitz goes into pseudobiblical paroxysms over his “apartment full of demons,” his pursuit of “blood for Sam,” and his own Moloch-like identity: “I am War, I am Death, I am Destruction. . . .” Janet Van Wess renders Winnetka child assassin Laurie Dann as a child herself: a psychic puddle, simpering about shopping and money from Daddy, about who loves her and whom she hates. Playing Kenneth Bianchi, the Hillside Strangler, Cullen Reilley makes a show of falling into and out of three distinct personalities.

But mere delirium does not an honest monster make. As frankly and ostentatiously bats as they are (or appear to be: though it’s never communicated in Reilley’s performance, the real-life Bianchi reportedly faked his psychosis), these three aren’t nearly as interesting, as chillingly real, as some of their less demonstrative peers.

Charles Pike takes Henry Lee Lucas–the prodigious serial murderer immortalized in the cult film Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer–and makes him a funny, vulgar, utterly shattered redneck, infinitely lost despite the road map on which he traces some of his alleged 360 murders. Frank Howard gives us a sweet, tidy, boyish Richard Speck: disarmingly, unexpectedly, but not at all cloyingly Misterrogers-like as he describes his incredible drug consumption, his headaches and fatal blackouts. Tony Fitzpatrick’s Huberty is a miniature but precisely drawn portrait of a good man’s free fall through America’s so-called safety net into what’s become an equally American chasm of poverty, humiliation, alienation, and anger; when he finally opens up in the McDonald’s, it makes horrible sense.

My favorite monster, however, is one I’d never heard of before: Dennis “Des” Nilsen–known as Monochrome Man, apparently because of the white powder with which he covered himself, and convicted of murdering six people. Performed with a marvelous, unhurried authority by Michael Childers, Nilsen’s speech–about the pain of loneliness, the sorrow that comes with separation, and his own, grotesquely logical attempt to overcome that pain and sorrow–is mesmerizing in its strange gravity. Its sick-pure dignity.

Of course, Bundy’s in there, too–at the end, to impress us with his normality: “Do I look to you like a psychopath?” But the point’s already been made, in the sheer, creepy humanity of Pike’s Lucas, Howard’s Speck, Fitzpatrick’s Huberty, and Childers’s Nilsen. We don’t need Bundy’s respectability to make us realize that some of the monster lives in us. When he’s there before us, made vivid by the ensemble and a corps of writers headed by Kevin Hackett, we can recognize him. These murderers make odd company, but comfortable all the same.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Linn Ehrlich.