As written in the script, “The Infernal Comedy: Confessions of a Serial Killer” is “a stage-play for a Baroque-Orchestra, two sopranos and one actor.” As seen on stage, the show is a full art experience. Presented by John Malkovich and writer/director Michael Sturminger, it is an intriguing format of orchestral pieces, opera arias and one-man-show styled monologues that break the fourth wall to convey the complex, real life of Jack Unterweger.
For over three years now, Malkovich has been constantly re-molding and re-inventing the character of Unterweger on stage, the man of many professions: poet, novelist, journalist and, most importantly, serial killer.
Having being sentenced to life in prison after murdering a prostitute in 1974, the real-life Jack Unterweger didn’t become a full-blown star in Austria till his jail-time writings (poetry, novels and an autobiography, “Purgatory” ) were made public. Unterweger’s budding writing genius and candidness on the degradation in his life caught the attention of politicians and intellectuals alike, convincing the Austrian public of his rehabilitation and providing “reason” for them to petition for his release.
As a result, Unterweger was given free access to do what he did best — write stories and kill hookers. Unterweger’s influence infiltrated Austrian society: He became an acclaimed journalist, a movie about his life was in the process of being made and his works were being taught at schools. The public was blinded by his seeming earnestness to make himself a model citizen.
All the while, he was busy strangling prostitutes with their own bras. But as any drama would have it, Unterweger provided a climatic end to his own life’s story by hanging himself the day he was finally pronounced guilty for the murders.
All of this, and then some, is wrapped up into an artful presentation that was showcased at Zellerbach Hall this past Friday. When you get an actor of Malkovich’s esteem and antics, you can’t help but relish the opportunity to watch him play an Austrian madman. Malkovich so easily traps Unterweger’s nuances within himself. Unterweger is seen every time Malkovich purses his lips together while surveying the minimalist set around him, as if sustaining a silent whistle. There’s Unterweger looking at us, every time Malkovich wrenches his hands or allows his shoulders to tense up while shrugging to the audience during a stand-up-esque monologue, as if to say, “Am I right?” Most impressively, Malkovich charms and gains the trust of the audience, able to still provoke laughter from the crowd after explaining how he used to murder his victims.
One of the most poignant moments in the show involves Malkovich in a trance-like state, moving towards soprano Fribo, and suddenly striking out to strangle her with a bra. Succumbing to a post-coital-like collapse, Malkovich lays on his back whilst delivering his dialogue, not thrown off by the fact that he just “killed” someone. No remorse, no regret. The show goes on. Therein lays the essence of Jack, or Malkovich’s interpretation of the man that lived. It’s fascinating.
Within the varied format of this play-opera, the Musica Angelica Baroque orchestra (conducted by Adrian Kelly) and sopranos (Louise Fribo and Martene Grimson) play their parts well enough in providing music to translate Unterweger’s story into emotion. These musical metaphors, in the forms of arias and symphonies by the likes of Mozart and Haydn, do not consistently play out well, at times seeming to be repurposed for providing a concert recital for Fribo and Grimson. Although the two take on the roles of women in Unterweger’s life and sing arias that are to reflect and give voice to his victims, the absence of Malkovich’s presence leads to some tiresome stage play.
As Malkovich does take his liberties in transforming the character of Unterweger during each performance of “The Infernal Comedy,” it can be assumed that he consistently gives light to the behaviorisms and consciousness of a murderer. It is because of his masterful stage work that “The Infernal Comedy” can instill a type of fascination reminiscent of that which the public might have viewed Unterweger back in the early ’90s and how the audience views Malkovich as this character today.