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Kiss Me Deadly: America’s First Serial Killer

Ed Rampell: Writer and lyricist Vanessa Claire Stewart has wrought a highly stylized production about America’s first serial killer, H.H. Holmes (Keith Allan of SYFY Network’s Z Nation series), an actual historic figure.
Deadly

Ashley Diane, Erica Hanrahan-Ball, Samantha Barrios, Keith Allan, Kristyn Evelyn and Cj Merriman. (Photo: Jessica Sherman)

DEADLY Theater Review

It’s often said that in comedy, “timing is everything,” and the opening and closing of the Sacred Fools Theater Company’s production of Deadly is perfectly timed. The proverbial curtain lifted at the Broadway Main Stage on Friday the 13th and Deadly will run through Halloween weekend. Of course, it must be noted that while there may be some light moments in this spooky, macabre musical - notably during the droll song “The Southern Way” - Deadly is not a comedy.

Writer and lyricist Vanessa Claire Stewart has wrought a highly stylized production about America’s first serial killer, H.H. Holmes, an actual historic figure.

Indeed, book writer and lyricist Vanessa Claire Stewart has wrought a highly stylized production about America’s first serial killer, H.H. Holmes (Keith Allan of SYFY Network’s Z Nation series), an actual historic figure. And like Charlie Chaplin’s 1947 Monsieur Verdoux, Stewart has mixed social commentary with her murder mystery. While Chaplin slyly critiqued capitalism and war, Stewart adds a feminist dimension to her vision. While Holmes’ “victims and their stories vanish into the ether” in his and others’ accounts of their demise, as she writes in the playbill’s author’s note, Stewart gives his female fatalities voices, through dialogue, lyrics and music (composed by musical director Ryan Thomas Johnson).

By and large, the women this Bluebeard slew were lured in the 1890s to Chicago by the Columbian Exposition, a world’s fair that commemorated Christopher Columbus’ 400th anniversary of his arrival in the so-called “New World.” (How ironic that an observation of a voyage that triggered one of the greatest genocides in history - the slaughter and dispossession of the indigenous people in what is now called the Americas - would lead to a serial killer’s carnage four centuries later. Don’t get me started!)

deadly

Rebecca Larsen and Samantha Barrios.

The fair, which, among other astonishments, unveiled the world’s first Ferris wheel, attracted adventurous-minded women to the Windy City and some of them found their way to Holmes’ hotel (or “murder castle”). And as the mass murderer put it: “They were intelligent, ambitious, independent women. It just wouldn’t do.” Or, in today’s Trumpian parlance, they were “nasty women.” (Indeed, at one point Ms. Stewart seems to cleverly quote from Trump’s despicable Access Hollywood tape.)

The murderous misogynist grabs his victims by different parts of their anatomy as he holds forth over a deceptively simple-appearing, mostly bare set. The stage is dominated by a mobile platform that, aided by audience members’ power of imagination, forms Holmes’ house of horrors. There, Holmes is assisted in his horrific handiwork by his hapless handyman Benjamin Pitezel, an alcoholic whose emotions are twisted like a pretzel. (French Stewart’s understudy, David L.M. McIntyre, played the dipsomaniac on opening night due to Mr. Stewart’s vertigo, which made scaling said platform perilous).

The array of women Holmes runs amok amongst include Emeline Cigrand (Sacred Fools stalwart Cj Merriman), whom the sexually inept Pitezel has invited to the murder castle in hopes of romancing. Kristyn Evelyn (Evelyn Stewart, who appeared in the Fools’ The Art Couple) is a proto-feminist and supporter of women’s suffrage who quickly falls afoul of the woman-hating Holmes - he especially despises them thar independence-minded gals. Lizzie Simmons’ (Brittney S. Wheeler, who if my ear heard correctly, has a lovely soprano voice) laments that her young life was snuffed out so early.

Minnie Williams (Samantha Barrios) is a portly but wealthy Southerner wooed by a Holmes lusting after her estate. Her younger sister Anna (Rebecca Larsen) is suspicious from the first about Holmes, whom her sister carried on a long distance affair via correspondence. Much to her chagrin, Anna’s suspicions are confirmed - but, alas, too late for the Southern lass to escape his cutthroat clutches.

A standout in this cast of 10 is Erica Hanrahan-Ball as Julia Conner, a married mother who succumbs to Holmes’ unholy charms. Ms. Hanrahan-Ball may excel because she recently acted in a play with a somewhat similar slasher plot, South Coast Repertory’s Sweeney Todd, The Demon Barber of Fleet Street. Her doomed daughter Pearl Conner is played by Ashley Diane, who’d convinced me she was just a little girl but later shocked me at the reception by revealing she was actually all of 27. It’s called “acting”!

The females destined to die form onstage spectral presences a la Thornton Wilder’s Our Town. They discover in death that sisterhood is powerful as they haunt the scene of the crime, where they met their fates due to arson, asphyxiation, lynching, and various other cruel if creative means of disposal devised by the maniacal Holmes and his jackal henchman Pitezel in the murder castle.

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Jaime Robledo is Deadly’s directorial deadeye Dick, shooting an artistic bull’s eye. Imaginatively helmed, Robledo is back in the saddle again at Sacred Fools, directing his tenth production for the company, which is one of L.A.’s edgiest. Robledo skillfully pulls all of the elements of this ambitious, highly theatrical (in the best sense) musical, with some clever stagecraft (as in, for example, that tour de force, the Buster bioplay Stoneface directed by Robledo, written by Vanessa, starring French) together, and while this is Deadly’s world premiere, who knows where - on what stage or screen? - this whirligig will wind up?

Deadly

Keith Allan, Erica Hanrahan-Ball, Ashley Diane and Brittney S. Wheeler.

Costume designer Linda Muggeridge’s apparel is almost like a character in Deadly. Once one of Holmes’ duped females fall prey to his brutality and they shed their mortal coils, they also shed their 19th century garb and Ms. Muggeridge outfits them in getups suggestive of lingerie. Although a couple of cast members promenade about in bra tops the costuming is not too revealing - perhaps a nod to a #metoo mentality. (Years ago a Sacred Fools production of Bertolt Brecht’s Baal included full (Fool?) frontal nudity.)

Scenic designer Stephen Gifford’s barebones, serviceable set is enhanced by Corwin Evans’ projections. It’s great to attend a new musical with a live band, and musical director Ryan Thomas Johnson ably presides over his four-piece ensemble as they perform 22 original songs with music composed by Johnson and lyrics penned by the estimable Vanessa Claire Stewart, who stumbled upon the Holmes saga because she’s a history buff. Surely if H.H. Holmes were alive today, he’d be one of those mass shooters mowing down innocents at schools, malls, places of worship, casinos, et al. But living as he did in simpler times H.H. had to rely more on his wiles to wreak his mayhem.

As members of the Rogue Machine and Sacred Fools companies and beyond, playwright/lyricist/actress Vanessa Claire Stewart and actor French Stewart are arguably the “First Couple” of the Los Angeles theater world. French has co-starred in TV sitcoms such as 3rd Rock from the Sun and currently CBS’ Mom. He played Sigmund Freud and Queen Victoria in Sacred Fools’ delightful 2012 Sherlockian spoof Watson: The Last Great Tale of the Legendary Sherlock Holmes. In 2013 French depicted the immortal silent movie comedian Buster Keaton in the aforementioned Stoneface for Sacred Fools (and if ever there was a sacred fool, it surely was Buster) and then in a Pasadena Playhouse revival. In 2018 French portrayed a character based on Oscar-nommed actor and comedian Jack Gilford in Rogue Machine’s Hollywood Blacklist era drama Finks. In June French pulled a 75-year-old rabbit out of his hat and starred in Harvey at the Laguna Playhouse.

Vanessa co-starred with her husband in Finks. She won an LA Weekly best actress award for playing Alex in a stage version of A Clockwork Orange, as well as Ovation Awards for co-writing and starring in 2009’s beloved Louis and Keely: Live at the Sahara, which started out on Sacred Fools’ intimate stage but went on to be mounted at larger theaters, including the Geffen and Laguna Playhouses. Vanessa also wrote Stoneface for French.

With Deadly, Vanessa Claire Stewart remains a force to be reckoned with in the L.A. stage and Sacred Fools is kicking its 23rd season off with a wild ride. Although due to its subject matter Deadly is not appropriate for children (unless they’re really 27!), adventurous, serious theatergoers are likely to be entranced by this vision of a serial killer - and the women who resisted him.

Fun Facts of the Review: What do Jimmy Stewart and French Stewart share (besides the same last name)? 1) Both starred in Harvey - Jimmy in the 1950 film, French in this summer’s Laguna Playhouse production of the whimsical story about a six foot rabbit; 2) Jimmy starred in Alfred Hitchcock’s 1958 movie Vertigo, while French actually has vertigo. (Get well soon, French!)

Deadly is playing through Nov. 2 on Fridays and Saturdays at 8:00 p.m., and at 7:00 p.m., Sunday, Sept. 15 and 8:00 p.m., Monday, Oct. 21 at The Broadwater Main Stage, 1076 Lillian Way, L.A., CA 90038. Reservations can be made by contacting sfreservations@sacredfools.org or buy tickets online at: www.sacredfools.org.

Ed Rampell

Ed Rampell

L.A.-based reviewer/film historian Ed Rampellco-authored “The Hawaii Movie and Television Book”available at: https://mutualpublishing.com/product/the-hawaii-movie-and-television-book/. Rampell is moderating the “Enter Stage Left: Theater, Film and TV for a Better World” panel at the Left Coast Forum (see: https://leftcoastforum.org/enter-stage-left/).