Outré Theatre Company Announces
“The Power of Woman”
The Outré Theatre Company’s Artistic Director Skye Whitcomb and Managing Director Sabrina Lynn Gore are pleased to announce Outré’s fourth season, and its first full season at the Broward Center for the Performing Arts. This season will be built around “The Power of Woman,” with productions focusing on the strength, seduction, and experiences of women. The season includes an Outré twist on a classic musical, a modern adaptation of a timeless Greek tragedy, and a punk rock musical spanning the globe, as well as Outré’s signature concert series. All performances will be at the Abdo New River Room at the Broward Center for the Performing Arts.
Outré begins the 2015/16 “Power of Woman” season with the Brecht and Weill satirical musical The Threepenny Opera, the revolutionary play and original ‘mock-pera’ that introduced “epic theatre” to the masses and inspired such musicals as Cabaret and Chicago with its sensual, jazz-drenched melodies and gritty characters. Lending its signature style to this modern classic, Outré is pleased to showcase the dark underworld of London, where Mack the Knife, Polly Peachum, and Pirate Jenny hold sway over the bands of cutthroats, prostitutes, and miscreants. The Threepenny Opera will perform August 28 through September 13, 2015, with performances on Fridays and Saturdays at 8 pm and Sundays at 2 pm.
Following The Threepenny Opera, Outré turns its attention to the ancient story of a woman with nothing left to lose, Euripides’ tragedy Medea. Reimagined in a modern context, Medea tells us of a woman spurned by her husband for a younger woman, and the lengths to which despair and rage can push us. Medea will perform March 11 through March 27, 2016, with Friday and Saturday night performances at 8 pm and Sunday performances at 2 pm.
In April, Outré brings back its signature concert series with Goblin Market, adapted by Polly Pen and Peggy Harmon from the poem by Christina Rossetti. This two-woman musical follows two grown sisters as they return to their childhood home, where the goblins and faeries of their adolescence beckon them to leave the proper Victorian world behind and revel in the pleasures of the senses. Praised by critics and audiences, Goblin Market runs for a single weekend, April 8 through April 10, 2016, Friday and Saturday at 8 pm, and Sunday at 2 pm.
June sees Outré return to the heady punk world of 1977, with a full production of Rooms: a rock romance by Paul Scott Goodman and Miriam Gordon. Presented as a concert production during the 2014/15 season, Sabrina Lynn Gore again directs Noah Levine and Erica Mendez in this tale of two young people struggling against the pressures of fame. Dealing with alcoholism, bulimia and unplanned pregnancy, they strive to find themselves and each other. Rooms plays June 10 through June 26, 2016, with performances at 8 pm on Fridays and Saturdays and at 2 pm on Sundays.
In addition to its normal season, Outré is also thrilled to announce a single-weekend return of Thrill Me by Stephen Dolginoff! Conor Walton and Mike Westrich return to the stage to reprise their roles as Richard Loeb and Nathan Leopold, the infamous thrill killers of the early twentieth century. Hailed as a triumphant production by critics and audiences, winner of the 2014 BroadwayWorld Awards for Best Musical, Best Ensemble, and Best Lighting Design, and nominated for two Carbonell Awards, Thrill Me will return December 11 through December 13, 2015, with only three performances: Friday and Saturday at 8 pm, and Sunday at 2 pm.
Outré is proud to call the Abdo New River Room at the Broward Center for the Performing Arts its new home. The Abdo New River Room features a fresh, modern menu of delectable choices with table service offered 90 minutes prior to performances and during intermission for shows that take place in the Abdo New River Room. Please note: arrive at least 15 minutes prior to curtain to ensure table service. No table service is available after the show. Tickets to performances in the Abdo New River Room do not include food or beverages unless otherwise noted.
Season tickets and individual show tickets will be available soon by visiting the Broward Center of the Performing Arts’ website, www.browardcenter.org, or by calling 954-462-0222.
The Outré Theatre Company warmly invites you to join us as we celebrate the return of local professional theatre to Fort Lauderdale! We hope you will join us at our Benefit Gallery Showing at Blue Fine Art Gallery, located at 713A East Las Olas Boulevard, on November 14, 2014 from 7:00 PM to 9:00 PM.
That evening, 20% of your purchase of exquisite, contemporary art from the Blue Fine Art Gallery will be donated to Outré, South Florida’s fastest-growing, award-winning, professional, non-profit theatre company. We cannot thank the Blue Fine Art Gallery enough for their generosity in hosting this fundraising event.
We will be offering complimentary wine and hors d’oeuvres, as well as entertaining you with live music by Outré’s featured local musical theatre artists. Cocktail attire is suggested, but black tie is also welcome.
Outré Theatre Company’s Artistic Director Skye Whitcomb and Managing Director Sabrina Gore will also be on hand to discuss our upcoming production of William Shakespeare’s Othello, opening on December 5, 2014, at our new home at the newly renovated Adbo New River Room at the Broward Center for the Performing Arts. They will also be previewing our new Black Box Club, which will be launching on opening night of Othello!
Outré has so much to be thankful for this season, including your generous support! Please join Outré Theatre Company for our Benefit at Blue Gallery, on November 14, 2014 from 7:00 PM to 9:00 PM.
Outré’s Nightmarish “Back of the Throat” Exposes How Post 9/11 Paranoia Allows Abuses
by Bill Hirschman
The temptation is to describe Yussef el Guindi’s nightmarish Back of the Throat as Kafkaesque or satirical absurdism worthy of Lewis Carroll as Outré Theatre Company depicts an America gone mad.
But it’s not. That’s the real horror. The extremities unfolding before the audience are a logical if artistically exaggerated extrapolation of the paranoia and xenophobia unleashed in tandem against Arab-Americans after 9/11. It’s naturalism not surrealism.
Far more than a rant about this country’s excesses after the Twin Towers tragedy, Back of the Throat is a universal cautionary tale of how fear can trump our ideals, even our humanity in the interest of expedient self-defense.
And Outré, operating on a shoestring and specializing in edgy work with a social message, has outdone itself with the best offering of its three-year history – a production so powerful that the opening night audience just sat stunned in their seats after the lights came up.
Other than theatrically staged flashbacks, Back of the Throat is constructed as a real-time 85-minute interrogation of a naturalized Arab-American suspected for some undisclosed reason of complicity in a recent terrorist attack.
Braced in his own apartment after giving permission to two investigators to look around, the hapless innocent Khaled is at first only uneasy at their enigmatic questions.
Khaled is told in a genial but insinuating tone, “If you have nothing to hide, you have nothing to worry about.” But the clear message is that he does have something to worry about. The fact that this aphorism is a self-fulfilling double bind means even his mounting anxiety is “evidence” against him.
But genteel inquiries give way to physical violence and shattering humiliation. The noose tightens until he realizes that he is predestined by the feds’ rationalized guilty-until-proven-innocent logic in extremis.
The performances under the sure guidance of artistic director Skye Whitcomb are perhaps the best we’ve seen from everyone involved, especially Rayner G. Garranchan as Khaled, and the always superb Jim Gibbons as Bartlett, the iron fist in a velvet glove interrogator, and Tim Gore as his terrifyingly implacable and methodical partner Carl.
What is especially unnerving about the public servants created by Gibbons and Gore is that while you cannot excuse their abuses for five seconds, the internal logic of their thinking charted by el Guindi is unassailably consistent. Therefore, it has a weird integrity. Right is on their side and there is not a milli-second’s doubt in their mind; that empowers them to violate every American and Judeo-Christian tenet in the book.
That also allows them to indulge in the most backwards thinking processes possible. As Carl gets ready to beat viciously kick Khaled, he says calmly, almost regretfully, “This will take away from your humanity, which is not good for us.” and later, “If you’re innocent, why did I kick you?”
El Guindi, an insightful playwright from Seattle, is not out to demonize the institutions with a one-dimensional screed. The play is an object lesson in the consequences when society’s tacit approval or even indifference enables abuses that counter what we profess to believe in.
In fact, an interesting resonance arises when the interrogators have jettisoned their humanity with almost the same ends-justify-the-means we-have-been-driven-to-this logic that the terrorists themselves use – each extremism engendering the other in a symbiotic dance of death.
El Guindi takes it one step further. The play ends with an eloquent speech by the dead 9/11 plotter who has appeared as a mostly silent ghost or in flashbacks. In a frighteningly calm and measured performance by Freddy Valle, the terrorist explains his rationale in a way that would be seductively persuasive if not for the horror of what we know he plans to wreak.
The playwright carefully constructed this dance with ever-morphing tempos and Whitcomb has matched it step for step. His verbal and physical staging is appropriately fluid. Whitcomb and assistant director Sabrina Lynn Gore have not paced the journey in the sense of it being fast or slow, so much as tightening and loosening and then tightening again the feeling of encroaching doom. With his actors, he has created tones that range from pleasant to threatening. The evening feels like a blind man desperately trying to find an escape from in an ever shifting labyrinth. He also moves the action cinematically between the interrogation and flashback scenes with very different witnesses, all inhabited convincingly by the wonderful Faiza Cherie.
So many of the twists of the garrote are subtle but clear. During the opening scene, Bartlett exudes faux cordial banter with Khaled, “apologizing” for being intrusive even as they blithely violate his space. Carl methodically searches the apartment, paying special attention to the bookcase. Carl removes volume after volume as if he has discovered clues; Khaled becomes increasingly concerned that the titles can be misconstrued. Carl assures him not to worry; they will be out of here in five minutes. Shortly thereafter, with the confiscated books accumulating, Carl takes off his jacket and rolls up his shirt sleeves. Chilling.
Later, an alarmed Khaled, fearing that he is being railroaded, says to the staring men, “I’d like you to leave.” The men don’t even blink. Then, after a second or two of silence, Bartlett says with feigned sympathy, “I’m sorry you feel that way.” It’s now clear that the point of no return has been crossed. But in retrospect, Khaled and we realize that line was crossed when he agreed to cooperate with them. And as we learn later in flashbacks of possible witnesses against him, that line was crossed long before the men arrived.
Occasionally, the lawmen explode in invective and violence – although you wonder if that isn’t just another calculated use of a tack in the interrogators’ toolbox. Gibbons in particular has an unnerving venting speech about how immigrants have the unmitigated gall to invoke Constitutional rights when they are destroying this country—even as he acknowledges that he is the proud great-grandson of immigrant. “Yesterday, it was the Irish and the Poles; tomorrow, it might be the Dutch,” he says.
Garranchan creates a protagonist so breathtakingly ordinary that we cannot help but identify with him. He starts a bit apprehensive as his apartment is inspected. But bit by bit, with Whitcomb’s guidance, Garranchan ramps up the anxiety with a literally open-mouthed expression of amazement and fear as his visitors ignore questions about what he is being accused of. Garranchan’s Khaled hollowly pushes back, invoking his rights, already knowing that these men have no intention of honoring them. By the time Khaled gets angry, it is way too late.
But the play’s success is rooted in the measured performances of Gibbons and Gore as the bureaucratic functionaries who have heard every lie so often, dealt with traitors for so long and who are so convinced of their righteousness that their terrible pursuit is conducted with a surgeon’s dispassion, later revealed to harbor festering rage. These are not slobbering sadistic monsters – which is what makes them all the more frightening.
Gibbons has been one of the region’s best and underused actors for a decade and a half, notable for his honey smooth Louisiana accent with a bourbon kick. While he has played similarly menacing roles (e.g. the policeman in Infinite Abyss’ Project’s The Pillowman in 2011, his talent has just deepened over time. Tall, courtly with piercing blue eyes, Gibbons smoothly changes gears emotionally.
Gore seems transplanted out of a police detective bullpen somewhere. Taciturn and preternaturally all business, even his explosions of violence seem calculated. He seems resentful that this ungrateful slime has forced him to these extremes – although he has no compunction about it at all. The two actor/characters have a nice chemistry of long-time partners, especially the way they exchange glances when Khaled says something neutral that they take as confirmation of their suspicions.
Outré is moving later this season to the Broward Center’s Abdo New River Room, but it has been given temporary quarters at the tiny Sol Children’s Theatre in a strip shopping center in Boca Raton. The space is intimate, ratcheting up the claustrophobic feeling. But it also has a limited number of seats and Outré has had to cut back its schedule, so get your tickets now.
The Outré Theatre Company is proud to announce Outré’s first production of their third season, Back of the Throat by Yussef El Guindi. El Guindi’s work has been called “brilliant and sinewy” by the New Yorker, and praised for its “chillingly plausible vision” by the Seattle Weekly.
Set in the years post-9/11, Back of the Throat introduces us to Khaled, an Arab-American writer living in an unnamed American metropolis. In the aftermath of another devastating attack, Khaled finds himself the target of a “casual” inquiry by two government agents. But as rumors swirl and grudges are exposed, the darkness behind such governmental euphemisms as “person of interest” and “extraordinary rendition” is revealed. An unflinching and Strangelovian look at the post-9/11 stripping of Americans’ rights in the name of security, Back of the Throat mixes dark humor with paranoid suspense.
“It’s not a preachy play,” warns director Skye Whitcomb. “There’s a lot of humor to it, which makes it a bit more disturbing. The play really is about how every so often, a particular group in America is singled out. As one of the agents in the play says, yesterday it was the Irish and the Poles, tomorrow it might be someone else entirely. Really, the question the play poses is this: When it’s your turn, your turn to be the scapegoat, who will be your voice? Who will stand up for your rights?”
Managing Director Sabrina Gore, who is also pulling double duty as assistant director and costumer, agrees. “I think the show really speaks to the paranoia and fear that is very prevalent today. But the fear is more of our own government,” she says. “It’s unsettling to think this sort of thing could happen in this country but the truth is, it happens all the time.”
In keeping with Outré’s commitment to community involvement and outreach, Outré will be raising funds during the production for the Legal Aid Society of Palm Beach, which provides pro bono legal advice and counsel to the disadvantaged. As well, Dr. Abdul Samra of the University of Miami and the Islamic Center of Greater Miami will host a talkback with the audience after the 8 pm performance on Saturday, October 25.
Back of the Throat will be performed at Sol/Evening Star Productions, 3333 N. Federal Highway in Boca Raton. The production runs October 24 through November 9, Fridays and Saturdays at 8 pm and Sundays at 2 pm, with an industry night performance on Monday, November 3, at 8 pm. The production stars Rayner Garranchan, Jim Gibbons, Tim Gore, Faiza Cherie, and Freddy Valle, with set design by Jordon Armstrong, lighting and sound design by Stefanie Howard, and stage management by Jennipher Murphy.
Outré Theatre Company is proud to announce the casts of its first two shows of the 2014/15 season!
First, Back of the Throat by Yussef El Guindi, running October 24-November 9, 2014, at Sol/Evening Star in Boca Raton!
- Khaled – Rayner Garranchan
- Bartlett – Jim Gibbons
- Carl – Tim Gore
- Shelley/Beth/Jean – Faiza Cherie
- Asfoor – Freddy Valle
Then, William Shakespeare’s Othello takes the stage at the Broward Center in the Abdo New River Room December 5-21, 2014!
- Othello – Troy Davidson
- Desdemona – Faiza Cherie
- Cassio – Rayner Garranchan
- Roderigo – Seth Trucks
- Bianca – Kandace Crystal
- Iago – Skye Whitcomb
- Emilia – Sabrina Gore
- Brabantio – Mark Hetelson
- The Duke – Tim Gore
- Montano – Reginald Pierre-Louis
- Lodovico – Jennipher Murphy
- Gratiano – Christopher Mitchell
- Clown/Messenger/Soldier – Bradley Wells
- Musician/Sailor – Juan Gamero
- Musician/Sailor – Daryl Patrice Fortson
Congratulations to the casts, and we can’t wait for you to join us!
The Outré Theatre Company will be holding non-Equity season auditions on Monday, July 21, 2014, from 5 pm to 10 pm, BY APPOINTMENT ONLY. Actors interested in auditioning should submit electronic copy of their headshot and resume, along with the role(s) for which they would like to be considered, to Artistic Director Skye Whitcomb at email@example.com when requesting an appointment. The 201closeAn error occurred.4/15 season consists of Back of the Throat by Yussef El Guindi, Othello by Will Shakespeare, and Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson, music and lyrics by Michael Friedman, book by Alex Timbers. Auditionees DO NOT need to prepare monologues; sides will be sent prior to the auditions. Auditionees wishing to be considered as replacements for Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson should also prepare 16 bars of an uptempo rock-style song. The breakdown is as follows:
Back of the Throat by Yussef El Guindi – October 23-November 9
Khaled – male, late 20s to mid-30s – An Arab-American writer, living in a large, unnamed U.S. city. Truly believes in the good of humanity.
Bartlett – male, 30s to 70s – An agent working for an unnamed government agency. Alternately brilliant and cruel.
Carl – male, late 20s to 50s – Another agent. Brutal and simplistic.
Shelley/Beth/Jean – female, mid 20s to mid 30s – Khaled’s ex-girlfriend, a well-intentioned librarian, and a stripper, all of whom are questioned by Bartlett and Carol about Khaled – NOTE: these three roles are played by the same actress
Asfoor – male, early 20s to mid 30s – A jihadist linked to a terror plot
Othello by Shakespeare – early 2015
Othello – male, late 30s to 50s – A lifelong soldier, known for his calm, collected demeanor; a perpetual outsider
Desdemona – female, 20s – A strong, intelligent young woman raised in a powerful household
Iago (CAST – actors will be considered as possible replacements) – male, late 20s to mid 30s – A career soldier and borderline sociopath; cunning and clever
Emilia (CAST – actors will be considered as possible replacements) – female, late 20s to mid 30s – A career soldier who has watched her marriage dissolve; independent and strong-willed. Iago’s wife
Cassio – male, 20s to 30s – A handsome and intelligent officer, but arrogant at times
The Duke – male, 40s to 70s – The ruler of Venice; calculating and pragmatic
Brabantio – male, 40s to 70s – Desdemona’s father; overprotective and suspicious
Bianca – female, 20s to 30s – A Cypriot woman, rumored to be a prostitute; madly in love/lust with Cassio
Ludovico – male, 30s to 60s – A Venetian nobleman, related to Desdemona
Gratiano – male, 30s to 60s – Another Venetian nobleman, trusted by the Duke
Roderigo – male, 20s to 30s – An oblivious and easily duped romantic
Montano – male, 30s to 50s – A retired soldier, now appointed governor of Cyprus
The Clown – either gender, any age – A servant; witty and a bit too forward
Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson – late spring/early summer 2015
All roles have been CAST – actors will be considered as possible replacements.
Reviewed by Rod Hagwood for the Sun-Sentinel
Staged with cool efficiency by Outre Theatre Company, “Thrill Me: The Leopold and Loeb Story” is a two-man, 90-minute show with so many chilling moments you’ll wish for an intermission so you can catch your breath.
But no, the based-on-real-events-play about America’s original “thrill killers” doesn’t let up one bit. Even with slivers of humor so dark they bleed smoke, the show is a nasty piece of business, made all the more visceral with masterfully menacing performances.
Told in flashback from 1958, the story concerns the relationship between Richard Loeb (Conor Walton) and Nathan Leopold (Michael Westrich), who in 1924 were 19-year-old law students from wealthy Chicago families. But underneath that dapper and patrician façade, the two are engaged in a down-low and dirty power struggle with each other.
Loeb, signaling his sadistic nature right off the bat, greets his adoring prep-school pal Leopold, after a span of time away from each other at different colleges, with an icy, “I only missed the worship.”
In order to stoke the sexual fires, Leopold agrees to a bit of arson, which leads the two to sing, “Nothing Like a Fire.” Out of context, the lyrics could be mistaken for a love ballad about the delights of home and hearth.
But a taste of excitement isn’t enough for Loeb. He wants to feast. Bolstered by Friedrich Nietzsche’s philosophy of the super man and more than a bit of what we now call “affluenza,” Loeb thinks his superiority will allow them to get away with the murder of a 12-year-old boy. “I don’t know how my consciousness worked back then,” Leopold says.
Stephen Dolginoff — who wrote the book, music and lyrics — offers a delicious twist at the end that gives the show its final, triumphant gut punch and shocks you back into reality. How could you have been taken in by two actors, a piano player and a mostly bare stage? Easy. It’s the talented twosome. They’re to blame.
Reviewed by JW Arnold for South Florida Gay News
Young love can be uplifting and empowering, but for Nathan Leopold and Richard Loeb, two Chicago teens growing up in the 1920s, their romance would become twisted, a tale of domination and submission and ultimately, murder.
“Thrill Me: The Leopold and Loeb Story,” which opened last week in a production by Outre Theatre Company at the Cutural Arts Center in Boca Raton’s Mizner Park, is based on the true story of these men, the so-called “thrill killers” who murdered a young boy in 1924 in order to commit the “perfect crime.”
A 2003 chamber musical with a book, lyrics and contemporary score by Stephen Dolginoff, the story is told in a series of flashbacks, beginning with Leopold’s fifth parole hearing in 1958.
Leopold is seated on a dark, sparsely decorated set dominated by black flats and boxes that will later be reconfigured. As the bright spot comes up on Leopold (Mike Westrich), the parole board (the voices of Oscar Cheda and Sabrina Gore) quizzes the convict. Once again, he lays out the facts of his crime, but the parole board seeks the deeper motivations for participating in “the crime of the century.” But, then it dawns him, this time he could reveal more, perhaps leading to the parole he has sought so many times before.
He recalls reuniting with his childhood friend, Richard Loeb (Conor Walton). Despite the fact they shared an adolescent romance, the Nietzsche reading Loeb, has matured into a cold, calculating sociopath, eager to manipulate his willing acolyte to participate in ever escalating crimes. Loeb only offers his physical affection after Leopold signs a contract — they both ironically dreamed of becoming lawyers — in blood. The price is his contrition, first as they burn a warehouse, later rob a home while the owners sleep and then plot Loeb’s ultimate crime, murder.
Whether unconsciously or not, Leopold loses his glasses at the crime scene and, of course, the expensive imported frames lead the police right to the men. Despite Loeb’s threats, Leopold eventually gives in to the police interrogators and the duo land in the Joliet Prison, surprisingly spared the death penalty, thanks to the cunning strategy of their lawyer, Clarence Darrow.
Westrich first gained widespread notice as the gay prison camp inmate in Island City Stage’s multiple Carbonell Award-winning production of Dan Clancy’s “The Timekeepers” last fall. Again, he offers a nuanced performance, struggling with the moral compromises he is forced to make in order to win Loeb’s approval.
Walton, a veteran of many critically acclaimed Slow Burn Theatre productions, gives a chilling performance as Loeb, perhaps the best of his career. The audience rightly squirms in their seats as each of his increasingly evil plots is hatched with Walton’s sly grin and piercing eyes.
Both are at their best while singing Dolginoff’s alternately soaring and searing melodies. Under the music direction of Kristen Long, who also accompanies on the piano, their voices blend perfectly as Loeb pulls Leopold into each escalating emotional transaction.
Director Skye Whitcomb’s intimate staging is further accentuated by the stark lighting design by Stefanie Howard. Howard brilliantly sets the stage for the flashbacks as Loeb appears in a flash only to disappear into foggy memories. She also recreates the headlights of Loeb’s Packard coupe, putting the audience into the eyes of the bewildered child who would later be murdered and mutilated.
“Thrill Me” is a disturbing show about disturbing subject matter, but in the hands of Westrich, Walton, Whitcomb and the Outre team, it’s also a powerful piece of musical theater that sheds light on a heinous crime that should not be forgotten.
Review by John Thomason for Florida Theater On Stage
Back in 1948, Alfred Hitchcock directed Rope, his most play-like of movies. Set in a single interior location and told in just 10 continuous shots, it was a sustained exercise in audience concentration. Not surprisingly, it was based on a 1929 play by Patrick Hamilton that took its inspiration from the real-life Leopold and Loeb murder case, in which two young men from Chicago slaughtered a 14-year-old boy in 1924, simply for the perverse thrill of doing it.
The heart of Hitchcock’s movie are the exchanges between its thrill-killers/lovers, Leopold and Loeb by any other names, played by John Dall and Farley Granger—both closeted Hollywood homosexuals whose characters’ smoldering onscreen relationship could only be implied, lest the censors have a conniption. By the time James Stewart shows up playing James Stewart, he sucks the oxygen out of the room, and Rope becomes less about unspoken desires and power dynamics of its intellectual murderers, and more about the movie star solving the mystery so we can go home feeling a little less uncomfortable.
For a Leopold and Loeb dramatization whose focus never wavers from exactly where it should be, look no further than Thrill Me, a musical-theater labor of love from triple-threat composer/lyricist/book writer Stephen Dolginoff. Closing out Outre Theatre Company’s 2013-2014 season nine years after its off-Broadway debut, this two-man, one-act musical still has the offbeat immediacy and barebones potency of a feverish fringe festival favorite, and it offers further proof that in Outre’s finest productions, less is more. Fearless direction from Skye Whitcomb and a pair of wildly contrasting but deeply engaged performances from Mike Westrich and Conor Walton translate Dolginoff’s coffin-black vision with demented urgency.
The only flaw in Thrill Me is its unnecessary framing device, which finds Nathan Leopold (Westrich) appealing to the parole board at an Illinois prison for the fifth time. It’s 1958, and we’re about to hear his tale of love and murder and woe and one-upsmanship reiterated in the style of a lazy cinematic flashback. Once you get past this minor dramaturgical hurdle, you’ll largely forget about it and find yourself enthralled by the music and acting.
The plot is as simple as the (uncredited) scenic design, which consists of four movable cubes, a metal folding chair, and a few black panels. Affluent law student Nathan meets homicidal classmate Richard Loeb (Walton) at the University of Chicago and becomes hopelessly smitten. Falling under Richard’s dominant spell, Nathan assists him in a series of increasingly dangerous crimes—committed, per Richard, to prove their “superiority” over the mass of mortals—with Nathan accepting sexual favors and intimations of love in return. Their extralegal adventures culminate in the murder of a teenage boy and the subsequent police investigation that sends them to prison and straight into the annals of pop psychology and morbid public fascination.
The 16closeAn error occurred. solo piano songs, performed beautifully and funereally onstage by music director Kristen Long, resemble Sondheim both in their clever blackness and difficult fluidity, with the actors required to drift in and out of song. Both achieve this without missing a beat.
Dolginoff’s sympathies clearly lie with Nathan Leopold, whom Westrich imbues with the tragic pathos of a wronged man—a victimizer who never stopped being a victim himself, save perhaps for a twist late in the show. The actor’s inherent likeability, which this year has brought out the best in shows ranging from The Plaza Theatre’s Rags to Island City Stage’s Have I Got a Girl For You, goes a long way at providing the emotional, relatable core of this sordid true-crime nightmare.
Walton’s Loeb, meanwhile, is a sheer terror, the show’s unfettered id. Introduced in a rakish black suit to Westrich’s virginal white attire (Sabrina Gore handled the evocative suits, fedoras and prison garb), he first appears as a haunting, low-lit specter. Not until the end of the musical does he express humanlike vulnerability; for the rest of it, Walton is a larger-than-life demon, possessing the hypnotic air of a Machiavellian arch-villain and the vacant eyes of a psychopath, his chest puffed up and his carriage always erect. His performances of “The Plan” (in which he proposes murdering his own brother) and “Roadster” (in which he lures the 14-year-old victim into his car) are as chilling as live theater can be.
The production’s minimalist staging receives a flawless assist from Stefanie Howard’s exceptional lighting scheme. Her work is full of subtle gradations, dangerous beauty (she effectively evokes a flickering fire during an arson scene, illuminating the actors’ faces in varying shades of red and orange) and dramatic punctuation, from the suggestion of a car’s headlights to flashes of bright light for each of the killers’ murderous blows.
Part of the reason the lighting is so noticeable is because the rest of the show is so unceasingly black. Whitcomb deserves ultimate credit for respecting the darkness of this material, and for pushing Walton’s performance to truly frightening extremes. With any luck, this is the sort of show that will haunt your dreams.