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Monday, October 24, 2011

John Malkovich Creeps Us Out as Serial Killer in The Infernal Comedy

Posted By on Mon, Oct 24, 2011 at 12:00 PM


Jack Unterweger -- the Vienna Strangler -- had movie-star charm and talent that fooled the entertainment industry and law enforcement for years. He became a media darling from within prison, was granted a pardon, then had a brief TV journalism career before launching another killing spree and being caught. This real-life character seems perfect for John Malkovich -- and the razor-sharp actor got applause and even laughs embodying this darkly fascinating man Friday night in Berkeley in The Infernal Comedy: Confessions of a Serial Killer. His performance was the strong point of a production that failed to hold the audience for its duration.

Currently on a world tour, The Infernal Comedy's billing is gnarly, combining elements of opera, theater, and some psychotic motivational seminar from beyond the grave. In the one-night performance at Zellerbach Hall, Malkovich was backed up by the Musica Angelica Baroque Orchestra and two world-class sopranos, plus Dante-style allusions to heaven, hell, and points in between.

Heavy stuff. And for a while, Sturminger's light touch worked wonders. When Malkovich first appeared, for instance, he bowed deeply to the clapping audience. And only when he spoke in that wispy, stilted accent did we realize that he was bowing not as Malkovich but as Unterweger. It's truly uncanny to applaud a serial killer, even a pretend one, and the queasy fascination lasted for a good while, pulling us from charm to psychosis and then just leaving us in the weird nexus of both.

One-liners abounded, propelled by Unterweger's hyperactive opinionations: "I've always been astonished by the emotional material women are capable of producing" got a good laugh, as did an improvised reference to last week's twin earthquakes. Our killer teased apart theatrical convention, hitting on women in the audience and the orchestra, halting the conductor, basking in the spotlight's focus on him alone.

Yet the production, written and directed by Michael Sturminger, went flat midway through. In overlong, Malkovich-less interludes, we heard only arias whose supertitled lyrics, however exquisitely sung, had little to do with anything. Still, the facts of Unterweger's riveting story allowed for a little coasting.

Born to a prostitute and raised by his grandfather (or maybe not, psychopaths aren't big on the truth), he hated women obsessively. (He blamed his mother.) He was convicted in 1974 for strangling a teenage girl with her own bra. Then, as Malkovich put it, "I started writing in prison to not go crazy." He wrote short stories, poems, a memoir entitled Purgatory: A Trip to Prison -- all catnip for those looking to show that the prison system isn't so bad. His 1990 release and pardon were championed by some of Europe's leading intellectuals. Praised as a model of criminal rehabilitation, Unterweger (a dead ringer for Julian Assange) became a TV personality drawing from his extensive understanding of crime and prostitution.
  • Tom Bachtell
As of 1991, the Vienna Strangler seemed like a cool guy. Except he was killing people again. Eleven more total. On assignment in Los Angeles covering prostitution, he probably killed three prostitutes (the use of bras was a tip-off), even as he interviewed cops and patrolled the red-light district in police cruisers. The L.A. police seemed to have no idea Unterweger was their man.

Later in the production, Malkovich as Unterweger strangled the singers with bras. (I was especially sorry to see Louise Fribo go -- her voice is extraordinary.) In 1994, held in an Austrian jail following his extradition from the U.S., Unterweger strangled himself using shoelaces and the cord from his track suit, done up in the same tricky knot as his murderous garrotes. But Malkovich, chastising the audience for its predictable expectations, stopped short of re-enacting any suicide. Release is forever just out of reach.

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