Fringe Feast #4: “Normal” asks what isn’t, and why

Normal, huh?  Intriguing title for a play about a serial killer; and it’s produced by The Vagrancy, whose work is always challenging.

The set (by Hillary Bauman) is intriguing, too.  Stairs upstage center lead to a curtain; four square pillars at the sides (where wings would be in a larger house) flash red and white light into the stage.  A man stands atop the stairs, his back to us.

In semi-abstract style, three actors (Arthur Keng, Steve Madar and Carolyn Deskin) unwind a tale that at first seems linear; but its narrative structure evolves into what you’d have if you tried to make a spiral with string and gave up.  (This is not at all a  criticism.)

Steve Madar, Carolyn Deskin (photo: Wes Marsala)

The case is unfamiliar to most of us (though it was infamous at the time, and Fritz Lang based his classic noir film M on it).  In 1929, a man terrorized the German city of Düsseldorf, murdering nine people and severely wounding more than two dozen others.  An admirer of London’s Jack the Ripper, he taunted the police with clues and letters.  Unlike his idol, he was swiftly caught and tried — having urged his wife to turn him in for the substantial reward.  Apart from her, he admitted to no feeling for any other person.

Normal pursues two questions:  (1) What might account for such utterly depraved emotions and behavior?  (2) What is the difference between a person living in such extremity and the rest of us?

These are the obvious questions, and Anthony Neilson’s text goes after them in ways both customary and unusual.

Of course, we learn about the hellish childhood of Peter Kurten (Madar), including his one human attachment — to a sadistic local dogcatcher.  At the same time, we watch as our narrator, tyro defense attorney Justus Wehner (Keng), falls prey to his client’s amoral manipulations.

While Kurten recounts losing (or failing to acquire) a conscience, gaining instead only hatred and ravening need, Wehner loses his ethical (if not his physical) virginity.  In scenes part reality, part dream, the attorney falls in love with, seduces, and murders his client’s wife (Deskin).  At his client’s behest.  By the end, Wehner is pleading empathy for the boy who became a killer.

The play keeps our interest, tightly directed (David Mancini) and performed.  The sound (Matt Richter) and lights (Jenna Pletcher) hold us close in mood and place.  Yet Neilson’s mental and moral explorations never reach outside the box like the stagecraft does.

His opening metaphor — an automated carnival machine in which Kurten stabs the children who drop in their coins — is never explored or paid off, only repeated.   He lets us hear the horrors of Kurten’s youth, but nothing makes us feel them (the suave, malicious man tells us of it, not the boy).   Wehner’s descent into his inner darkness is shockingly well staged — but it only yields a rant blaming “society,” instead of making us feel complicit.

Normal adds another fine production to The Vagrancy’s impressive track record.  I only wish the playwright had dug as deeply into his material as the performers do.
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Normal, by Anthony Neilson, directed by David Mancini.
Presented by The Vagrancy, at The Lounge Theater, 6201 Santa Monica Blvd., Hollywood 90038.

Saturday (June 24) at 8:00 pm.

Tickets: <www.hollywoodfringe.org/projects/4428>