‘Normal’ at Molotov Theatre Group

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Molotov Theatre Group has an uncanny knack for converting its tiny black-box nook into an auditorium-scale operating theater for surgical dissection of the dark side of human nature. With its new production of Normal, observers in attendance at the unflinching examination get an artfully horrifying experience that is both fascinating and profound.

As dextrously directed by Jay D. Brock, this 1991 play by the Scottish writer-director Anthony Neilson—based on the real-life case of a German serial killer in the 1930s—is like a sharp instrument that cuts to the quick.

Alex Zavistovich, Brian McDermott, and Elizabeth Darby. Photo courtesy of Molotov Theatre Group.
Alex Zavistovich, Brian McDermott, and Elizabeth Darby. Photo courtesy of Kristin Jackman.

In the role of Peter Kurten (“the Düsseldorf Ripper”), Alex Zavistovich reveals the character’s monstrosity not in overheated histrionics but in the blithe aloofness with which the killer retells his crimes and the curious off-handedness with which he regards his repellant past. Zavistovich’s face flickers with a wince at a memory of abuse by his brutal and rapist father. Or grins delivering a bon mot. Or processes impassively an accusation. This devil is in the details, and Zavistovch nails them  As a result the evening’s immersion in one man’s pathology is immensely more absorbing than off-putting, and far more edifying than one might expect.

The play is structured around pretrial interviews between Kurten and his fresh-out-of-law-school attorney, Justus Wehner, who seeks to understand what makes his client tick in order to build an insanity defense. As appealingly played by Brian McDermott, this earnest naif starts out as liberalism’s interlocutor, pursuing the social-political sources of the impenitent killer’s sadism. Though appalled at the lifelong convict’s behavior—Kurten’s serial incarcerations began as a youth—Wehner probes into Kurten’s early family history and in so doing dredges up a vivid portrait of a man whose sexuality had been irrevocably locked at a young age into acts of savagery. The cycle of abuse it’s called in therapeutic circles today. The play puts the point more bluntly: Society manufactures monsters.

There is a third actor onstage whose indelible presence makes the entire proceedings eerily  powerful. Elizabeth Darby is identified in the cast list as Frau Kurten, the compulsive murderer’s unsuspecting wife. We first see her lying limply as if a corpse; suddenly she rises and sighs plaintively, “Peter, what is it that’s happened?…The police were looking for you. Is it serious?…Peter, what have you done?” As we the audience learn more and more grim answers to that question, Darby luminously becomes many more selves than Frau Kurten: Now she is a masked mannequin in a bizarre pas de deux with the perp, now she is one of the children he slew…again and again Darby becomes our personalized point of reference for all the killer’s prey, and her remarkably centered and strong performance importantly illuminates an undercurrent of the play. There is no victim blaming in it. Not a stitch. However sexually driven is the butcher, however remorselessly he flays pieces of meat, the epic moral fail is solely his.

Composer/Sound Designer Gregg Martin serves up a chilling soundscape. Choreographer Sarah Frances Williams creates some strangely apt interludes, including the dance between Darby and Zavistovich and a song-and-soft-shoe routine by McDermott and Zavistovich (who also staged the fights—one of which goes on for several shocking minutes). That such momentous theatricality has been achieved on a bare-bones budget is a credit to the evocative minimalism of Lighting Designer Pete Vargo, Set Constructor Morgan Sexton, and Costume Designer Libby Dasbach.

Elizabeth Darby, Alex Zavistovich, and Brian McDermott. Photo courtesy of Kristin Jackman.
Elizabeth Darby, Alex Zavistovich, and Brian McDermott. Photo courtesy of Kristin Jackman.

Molotov’s niche, it says, is horror; but Normal dispels conventional notions about the genre. By the time in the performance when the full import of the play’s title begins to hit—when the audience is confronted by the extent to which this one man’s sexual sadism, though excessive, may not be exceptional—that which is horrifying has entered a truly disturbing dimension.

Running Time: 75 minutes, with no intermission.

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Normal plays through March 30, 2013, at the DC Arts Center – 2438 18th Street, NW, in Adams Morgan, in Washington, DC. Every Thursday is Pay-What-You-Can. Tickets can be purchased online.

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John Stoltenberg
Among the hats John Stoltenberg wears are novelist and author, creative director and communications strategist, and avid theatergoer. Decades ago, in college, he began writing, producing, directing, and acting in plays. He continued through grad school—earning an M.F.A. in theater arts from Columbia University School of the Arts—then lucked into a job as writer-in-residence and administrative director with the influential experimental theater company The Open Theatre, whose legendary artistic director was Joseph Chaikin. Meanwhile Stoltenberg’s own plays were produced off-off-Broadway, and he won a New York State Arts Council grant to write plays. Then his life changed course: He turned to writing nonfiction and what became a distinguished career as a magazine editor. But he kept going to the theater, the art form that for him has always been the most transcendent and transporting and best illuminates the acts and ethics that connect us. He tweets at @JohnStoltenberg.