by Kathryn Fores
“Thrill Me,” is well, thrilling. Seen in preview this show cannot get much better during its upcoming three-week run. If it is not the best production ever mounted by Outre Theatre Company, next to “The Illiad,” it certainly is in a dead heat for the most outstanding. Congratulations go out to co-producer and director Skye Whitcomb for creating a nearly flawless night of theatre. From the costumes to the lighting and everything in between, this show works and is working it.
The film noir-like lighting and stage pictures, note Loeb’s first dramatic reveal, only serve to create the tone for the rest of the evening. It is purposefully dark, like the subject matter, without ever casting shadows on the actors or failing to illuminate their harrowing facial expressions.
From the harsh lighting in the interrogation scene, Leopold’s parole hearing, to the surprising flickering flashes during the murder scene, lighting designer, Stefanie Howard, has outdone herself. Even the use of two lamps aimed directly at the audience, indicating the roadster/lair into which the fourteen-year-old murder victim is lured, is on point as is the red glow from a warehouse fire.
The costumes are perfect as well. Loeb, the “seeming” sociopath of the duo, dressed in black contrasts sharply with the “innocent” Leopold, who is appareled in soft wheat tones and off white. The costumer and co-producer at Outre, Sabrina Lynn Gore, channels the spirit of the gangster twenties mixed with the leisure of a Jay Gatsby summer suit.
The set is simple. Black flats, with large open spaces in between for the various entrances, predominate. Black boxes suggest the various locations and the furniture. The lone chair onstage is used by Leopold when he is with the parole board and is elevated from the rest of the set on a platform. Whitcomb utilizes the set pieces effectively, and there is never doubt about the locales in the numerous scenes, whether it is Loeb’s bedroom, the park, the police station or a prison cell. Whitcomb’s pacing is excellent and the stage movements seamless.
This is also true for the music. The song lyrics contribute to the story-telling as well and reveal the emotional arcs of the characters. The two performers are accompanied by musical director, Kristen Long, who plays the keyboard and has a keen sense of knowing how to both follow the performer’s singing and reinforce the acting with mostly subtle segues of music, which at times are purposefully jarring.
Mike Westrich as Nathan Leopold is at his best here. He delicately sculpts his performance as carefully as his he did in last year’s “Timekeepers.” Every change in feeling and attitude is written on his face. He is as still as a placid lake yet underneath a seething river of volcanic rock. He is driven by his obsession for Loeb. He will do anything for him, even commit murder. The audience can feel his roiling sexual need; it is that palpable. Even with an IQ on 210, it is not the head on top of his shoulders that motivates Leopold into committing a horrendous crime. His fatal attraction becomes Loeb’s undoing.
For his part, Conor Walton as Loeb is a raging river after a fierce storm. Quixotic and mercurial, having developed a salacious taste for more and more sordid experiences, he is the original adrenaline junkie. Moving from pyromaniac to cat burglar to eventual murderer, he becomes more crazed at time goes on. In one scene in which he ensnares his young victim, he is out and out creepy and his abhorrent desire is clearly manifest. His facial expressions here are almost over the top and strain credulity. What young boy would ever get into the car with this maniac? Pulling back a little from the precipice of insanity and using a more practiced and gentle approach to entice the boy would have had greater impact.
Nevertheless, audience members last night were still enthralled by his villainy. The scene at the warehouse fire is particularly effective in demonstrating Loeb’s unquenchable desire for causing and then witnessing destruction.
What motivates this predilection? Is it his belief that he is untouchable like Friedrich Nietzsche’s superman, which he compares himself to, or is he simply a sociopath, devoid of empathy?
Heard but not seen onstage are Oscar Cheda and Sabrina Gore as members of the parole board as well as Larry Buzzeo as the radio announcer. They are all very effective, as is the sound design by David Hart.
There are no hummable tunes in the show, but the song in which Loeb expresses his desire to kill his brother is a darkly funny take on sibling rivalry and the song “Life Plus Ninety Nine Years” gives full expression to Leopold’s addiction to Loeb. The story and music of “Thrill Me” may not wow you, but the deliberate direction, fascinating characters, fine performances and great production values will knock your socks off.