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Death Becomes Her 

A dubious agenda and clichéd lines overshadow this otherwise skillful one-woman show

Wednesday, Jan 10 2001
Serial Murderess, a solo show by Amanda Moody, has been extended at Venue 9 by popular demand. I saw it in November and wasn't sure what to think. On the one hand, Moody's sinuous talent lets her evoke three distinct characters from wildly different centuries -- three women who, for various reasons, kill -- but on the other hand, the writing is pleased with itself and immature. The show won a couple of Best of 2000 notices from the Bay Guardian, and since audiences as well as critics seem to love it unconditionally, I figure I should speak my mind.

The performance is subtitled "a play in 3 axe," which is a gratuitous pun (axes don't figure into the play). The first act features a Hungarian aristocrat from the 17th century named Erzèbet. Perched on a stool beside a mouse cage made of twigs, wearing a long dress that spills to the floor like a flow of blood, Erzèbet comes off as a vampiress, declaiming in verse about the hundreds of girls and young women she's murdered. "The rose is most voluptuous before it is to die," she sings. Erzèbet is a striking visual creation, a florid and horrible statue with a crown of dried roses whose thorny stems hang in her face, but her monologue is a string of empty, pretentious lines that don't tell a story so much as create an atmosphere, or an idea of an atmosphere. "The vulture is a connoisseur of death, you might have heard," she says. And: "Beauty is its own reward. ... One either has it, or has it not/ This blessed burden of a jealous God." The trouble with these lines is not that they fail to suggest Erzèbet's narcissism; rather, it is that they suggest it in a clichéd way that actually obscures character, and creates an embalmed emblem of a murderess instead of a human being.

This embalming is a pattern. The second act features Ruth, a working-class Victorian woman writing to her daughter Daisy. She wears a tight waistcoat and black-brimmed hat, but speaks with a cockney accent; we learn through the letter that Ruth has maintained a middle-class lifestyle by killing 27 of her husbands and kids. The letter includes advice to Daisy on "How to Murder Your Husband." Ruth explains how to poison his food so he doesn't notice, when (and when not) to spare the children, and how to handle the bodies, but her pert ideas are more obvious than funny and soon the joke grows redundant. Moody's accent also wavers between cockney and rolling-r upper-class -- capturing three or four regions of London along the way -- and, as if to confuse things further, the beautiful song she performs to introduce the act is a Gaelic murder ballad. ("Why d'your hands so drop with blood/ Nellie, oh, sweet Nellie?") This mixture of styles dilutes Moody's otherwise fine acting and the impressive costumes (created by Jennifer Trammell); the total effect leaves the impression that Moody has guessed at, rather than felt her way into, the heart of her murderess.

Same thing in Act 3. Joan, a former prostitute, sits in the electric chair and tells her story to a select, assembled audience (her victims' relatives). Joan has no hair; she speaks in a tough Southern twang and claims to be born-again. As a prostitute she killed nine johns, but now reading the Bible fills her "with a flood of divine love and light." In spite of this divine love she's still defensive, vengeful, and flip. Joan can't resist making ugly jokes as she recounts the brutal murders to her victims' (or oppressors') mothers and wives. These contradictions would make interesting theater if Moody orchestrated them, but she doesn't: We're supposed to believe, simultaneously, that Joan is born-again, that she enjoyed the murders as orgasmic revenge, and that recounting them now with obvious relish doesn't strike her as odd.

Serial Murderess has been called "refreshingly un-P.C." and even "transgressive" because it deals with a supposedly taboo topic: women who kill. "Murder isn't pretty, isn't funny, isn't feminine. Or is it?" says the promo copy on Venue 9's Web site. "In Serial Murderess, one might be surprised to find that murder can be seen as all of these things and, above all, that murder is an expression of ultimate power, the Rubicon that women, bringers of life, are morally, ethically, and constitutionally quite fit to cross." Yeah, no kidding. Who does this surprise, exactly? Serial Murderess is overly conscious of itself as a breaker of somebody else's rules, and the result is an awkward show, a display of powerful talent hemmed in by its own strange preconceptions.


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