“Villainy – Or – H.H. Holmes Own Story,” written by John Strysik and directed by Jeff G. Rack.
Running October 3 through November 7, Wednesday at 8pm The Whitefire Theatre, 13500 Ventura Blvd, Sherman Oaks, 91423
We are barely into October and I’m already on edge. L.A. theatre, as usual, is doing its best to scare and creep and torment me.
I am extremely grateful of course and hope to meet their chilling challenges.
The Whitefire Theatre serves up “Villainy – H.H. Holmes Own Story.” Holmes is America’s first known serial killer, and a particularly ghoulish one at that. Henry Howard Holmes was a doctor, or so he said. He built a hotel in Chicago close to the World Fair and fashioned it specifically to fill his nasty desire to control, dominate, manipulate and kill anyone that took his fancy. Rooms that were completely sealed airtight, back stairs to nowhere, narrow disorientating passageways and basements fitted with cells, torture chambers and furnaces. Once he dispatched his prey he often flayed the flesh from their bones and sold their skeletons to the local medical school. Lovely!
Henry Howard Holmes murdered at least 27 men, women and children, or rather that was the number he finally admitted to, although only after being offered a large sum of money and the eternal fame he yearned for by William Randolph Hearst who paid him to write his memoirs.
This play attempts to put us into the mind of this diabolical man, to give us a small glimpse of his “why” no matter how hard it is to face. It’s told in as twisted of a way as was the man himself. A dashing yet depraved Holmes, a man so duplicitous with absolutely everyone in his life could hardly be played by one single man. So the playwright creates two roles, one for the brazen public Holmes and one for Holmes as his own inquisitor as he sits in his cell in his final days…which is really quite brilliant.
The entire play is constructed around these final few days, with his dastardly deeds played in flashbacks. In these scenes we meet his wives and finances and lovers and the children of his closest employee Pitezel, the nearest thing he had to a friend, who he gleefully dispatched by binding him, dousing him in paraffin and setting him on fire. We see the torment and the misery he spread through his life and his total lack of empathy for anything but his own end when he was finally caught for murdering Pitezel.
It’s a dark story and not the kind of thing to take a kid to, but boy is it boldly and poetically told. The two actors playing Holmes are excellent and each finds a part of him to gloriously embody, the one just as rotten as the other. There is a particularly gruesome moment when Holmes locks his fiancé in his large office safe and waits for her to suffocate. The lights are low and Holmes walks up through the theatre listening to her sobs and pleadings from the steps of the audience as she dies. I swear the temperature dropped in the theatre and I was very, very relieved when Holes returned to the stage I can tell you. It was masterfully done.
The staging is inventive and wonderfully evocative. We are wooed by a beautifully played cello while we wait for the play to begin and it perfectly sets the scene as a cello’s woeful vibrations are oft to do. The wardrobe is also wonderful, everyone looks so beautifully their part. This makes all the difference and brings us very definitively into Holmes world of the late 1800s.
This could have been much bloodier, much more violent and flashy, but the restraint of the action and the icy focus on his wicked manipulation of the world makes it all the more terrible and delicious. Holmes was a devil in the truest sense. His life was one big con and he treated everyone like cattle to be used and then disposed of when he was done. If he thought that all his crimes would ever come to light it’s hard to say and since his death, the tale of his deeds has certainly grown much taller. He is now said to have killed more than 200. He is an absolutely perfect villain for this time of year and this play is wickedly good, wonderfully written and directed and beautifully acted. I highly recommend it.
Just don’t walk home alone afterwards…
Running October 3 through November 7, Wednesday at 8 pm https://www.brownpapertickets.com/event/3510956
Eric Keitel – Henry Holmes
Tor Brown – Herman Webster Mudgett & Others
McKenzie Eckels – Clara Lovering & Others
Jennifer Novak Chun – Mrs Holton & Others
Nathalie Rudolph – Myrta Holmes & Others
Tanya Raisa – Georgiana Yoke Howard & Others
Produced by John Strysik & Michael Carroll
Composer/Sound Designer – Jay Woeful
Costume Designer – Shon LeBlanc
Set Designer – Jeff G. Rack
Graphic Design – Lee Moyer
Technical Director – Brandon Loeser
Cellist – Jennifer Novak Chun