Organic Theater Company Greenhouse

The day I saw M: The Murderer, Bob Meyer and Jack Clark’s adaptation of the 1931 Fritz Lang movie, I read a newspaper article reminding readers that daylight saving time was about to begin. The article noted that the decision to turn clocks back one hour as winter approached was taken to protect children by giving them more sunlight when they travel to school.

Society makes token efforts to find ways to make children’s existences easier, yet their lives seem to get worse. And not just the lives of those in the underclass–personality disorders, emotional pressures, and random violence seem to be on the rise among children on every rung of the social ladder. Poor and middle-class kids alike are gripped in a rising tide of ignorance and neglect.

The encroaching holiday season seems to highlight our weirdly conflicting attitudes toward childhood. Halloween is one of the most fun times of the year for kids–and also one of the most dangerous, as the news media point out when warning of hazardous “treats” given to kids by maliciously inclined people. Thanksgiving, Hanukkah, and Christmas are the times for big family get-togethers–and all the anxieties that children feel on such occasions. The emphasis on the commercial aspects of Christmas–the insistent pressure on children to want, need, and possess the things their friends want, need, and possess–have already begun to dominate TV commercials. Teach your children well, as the saying goes.

M: The Murderer seems a particularly apt play for the season; its shadowy protagonist, known only as “M” because of an anonymous letter he wrote to the newspapers, is a serial killer with a penchant for little girls. He is in fact almost an angel of death, whose every new murder stands as a horrible rebuke to an errant parent and a society that shoves its young into the adult rat race and hopes they’ll keep up. Reinforcing this symbolic level is the reality: M is just a man, not a supernatural being–but a man whose warped and loveless childhood is now exacting a terrible price from the world. There’s more than a little of A Christmas Carol in M: The Murderer.

In directing the script he cowrote–based on the screenplay by Thea Von Harbou, Paul Falkenberg, Adolf Jansen, and Karl Vash, which in turn was based on a real criminal case of the 1920s–Bob Meyer has used an element heavily employed in most holiday shows. M: The Murderer, though officially a play, not a musical composition, is really a pageant of choral singing–every bit as much as the Goodman Theatre’s annual A Christmas Carol, which uses holiday tunes as an integral part of the action. Some of the music in M: The Murderer is overtly melodic: an eerily sweet and threatening series of singsong skipping chants, sung by high, pure, girlish voices under the direction of Marilyn Fisker. Most of the sound in this play subtly spans the line between song and speech; but the company’s use of overlapping, contrapuntal rhythmic patterns makes it a highly musical work even at its most dramatic. “El-sie, El-sie!” cries a mother seeking her missing child; her repeated phrase coincides with a man’s lower tones repeating “Ex-tra! Ex-tra!” as he hawks newspapers carrying reports of the latest crime.

Reinforcing the pageantlike nature of the script and score is Meyer’s minimalist staging. A visual artist as well as a director, Meyer is clearly more attuned to static images than to moving ones; watching M: The Murderer is a little like watching a slide show with an offstage sound track. Very seldom do we see the people make the virtually nonstop sound; the large cast mostly stands along the dusty brick wall at the back of the stage, while only a few principal characters move around on the elevated platform and staircase that constitute the downstage playing area. And the little movement that’s made is intentionally hard to see; Randy Buescher’s lighting keeps most of the stage pictures in shadow, except for an occasional pin spot and the constant thin streams of yellow light through the slats of the blinds hanging on a window that faces out onto Clark Street.

Meyer and Clark’s text employs some, but not all, of the screenplay for Lang’s famous film. At least one crucial sequence–in which the killer is tracked down in a long, suspenseful manhunt–is totally eliminated, and most others are abbreviated. The famous speech in which the killer (played in the film by Peter Lorre) lashes out at accusers who have no comprehension of what he feels is delivered intensely by Bob Kohut, but even here the feeling is restrained through its musical formality, like an operatic aria. There is certainly no attempt to make us believe that Kohut is M, any more than we might be asked to believe that Marilyn Horne really is the character she’s singing in a Gluck opera. Rather than presenting us with gut-level feeling–as he did in his similarly minimalist staging of Eugene O’Neill’s Hughie a couple of seasons back–Meyer offers ideas, highly formalized responses to the issue at hand. But in its spare selection from the film, M: The Murderer is thought-provoking. Rather than the expressionistic period piece it might have been, it takes a classic story and suggests we consider its contemporary implications.