The story of H.H. Holmes is a fascinating one. At least in the context of the century in which he lived. A classic psychotic serial killer, con artist, and bigamist, Holmes is America’s ‘Jack the Ripper’, a pop-culture-glamourous lady-killer, who for the American public inspired obsessive, juicy terror.
H.H. Holmes’ (aka Herman Webster Mudgett) Murder Castle, along with the man, over time has become a legendary tale that American author and biographer Adam Selzer notes, “like all the best, sprang from a kernel of truth”. Even today, some of the fact born from potential fiction that is attributed to Holmes remains in question.
In Deadly, playwright Vanessa Stewart certainly regales us with a delicious musical Barber of Fleet Street type version that has all the twists, turns and qualities of bonafide anathema. But as entertainment, it exceedingly lacks in one.
While Holmes (exceptionally created by Keith Allen) regularly enjoys sardonic pleasure leading his victims on and playing with them like detested ready-to-be-smashed perfect peas on his plate, loving the mush that results, between him and friend/accomplish Benjamin Pitezel convincingly enlivened by actor David LM McIntyre, there is barely perceptible jocularity inside the razor-sharp wit. In Pitezel’s case, the haze of an altered mind from treatments at a drug clinic to heal the guilt of murder. There is absolutely none from the rest of the characters including detective Frank Geyer (Eric Curtis Johnson). And it makes for a dolesome evening.
Although Holmes’ sexual advancements towards every one of his borders could rival those of Cassanova with the further god-like control over not just their hearts, or their comings and goings, but also their finances. For insurance purposes, Holmes convinces each to sign an accidental death insurance form – just in case.
The whole scenario gorgeously enhanced for starters by set design by Stephen Gifford, costumes by Linda Muggeridge, lighting by Andrew Schmadeke, props by Brandon Clark, projections by Corwin Evans, sound by Cricket S. Mayers and hair & makeup design by Kat Bardot (the list is far longer) makes for a truly full-bodied production.
And I could go on and on and on about everything H.H. Holmes in the context of this world premiere Jamie Robledo directed extravaganza, as I did well after the performance had ended, just as the public has done for years after Holmes’ execution…but the thing is…I actually came for the girls.
I attended this play to hear about the women. The victims. The names and faces that somehow throughout all of Holmes’ history have been completely forgotten in the zeitgeist of public imagination. And unfortunately, and surprisingly, sadly no less here in Stewart’s play when in fact, that was the point in Deadly. To finally give them a voice.
There are seven insanely talented actresses singing (albeit often well out of their respective ranges) and parading around the stage, and 100% delivering on every aspect of the script and musical score, all night long. Intelligent, ambitious, independent, modern women, just like their 1893 counterparts who lived during an exciting historic time of cultural, artistic and technological explosion taking place around them, but who are being upstaged by the very character, the very man, whose gruesome celebrity they are attempting to overcome.
And I’d like to accredit each one of them right here, right now, with their characters:
- Cj Merriman (Emeline Cigrand)
- Brittney S. Wheeler (Lizzie Sommers)
- Kristyn Evelyn (Evelyn Stewart)
- Erica Hanrahan-Ball (Julia Conner)
- Ashley Diane (Pearl Conner)
- Rebecca Larsen (Anna Williams)
- Samantha Barrios (Minnie Williams)
For surely, nonplussed as I am to say it, these women and the women they are trying to elevate in esteem and value, will surely be forgotten not more than minutes after this moment is passed. Because with all that they are, with all that they did, for all that they stood for, attempted, achieved, there was almost nothing for them to do. No action for them to attempt. No real justice then or now. To boot, in the finale of this particular story, the victims lie in hell with their perp! But most of all, I still know almost nothing about them.
And for me, as a woman, that’s more the tragedy.
Photo above by Jessica Sherman: (L to R) Ashley Diane, Erica Hanrahan-Ball, Samantha Barrios, Keith Allan, Kristyn Evelyn and Cj Merriman.