A jagged cobble gangway leads to a rundown London public house. Inside, the local pub’s dingily stained wood bar, worn and barely kept, stays littered with empty glasses awaiting a pour from Margarette (Sharon Nieman-Koebert), a surly bartender in the Whitechapel section. The pub’s flock comes to the trough at times solitary, and at others in tandem and at random, always gnarled like the wrought iron propping up the once fine carved stair banister. The same iron, cast thick to seal unequivocally combustible ether within it, protects the life of the only light on this bleak passage on Buck’s Row. A lurid scene to beset the stage, a swell display of craftsmanship to give a story a place; something Milwaukee’s come to expect from the Alchemist Theatre.
Aaron Kopec, the Alchemist’s lead producer/director, has been making rounds story telling the world’s most notorious villains. Eventually, the wheel had to stop on the original terror tale, of those despicable acts carried out by Jack the Ripper. Dubbed the first modern serial killer, the fact that “The Ripper” only had a nickname and never saw justice gives his legend that much more creepy mystic. His known victims referred to in history’s annals as the Canonical Five, collectively serve as the production’s namesake and principle character.
The Chisel, The Stone
One by one we meet Polly Nichols (Liz Whitford), Annie Chapman (Sammich Ditloff), Elizabeth Stride (Erin E.), Catherine Eddowes (Libby Amato) and Mary Kelly (Anna Figlesthaler), unsavory and low, making their ends meet through charms of the flesh. Their first impressions come through the crude eyes of two Whitechapel blokes, who give us a taste of the bitter flavor filling the Old World English body politic, freshly weary off a century of Industrialization.
Isolated and cynical of their own existence, we learn of the male archetype’s harbor of utter disdain for women from Thomas Cutbush’s (Randall T. Anderson) foul mouth, frothing with vile regard for each of the Canonical Five. As he describes the unseemly sisterhood, they pepper the street corners and pubs they work with quip dirty remarks, emitting an aura of rank sexuality, leaving little doubt as to the warrant for Cutbush’s attitude.
Then there’s James Sadler (Kurtis Witzlsteiner) a scurvy ship hand with a streak of kindness towards the neighborhood ladies, but within eye shot of a fellow bloke he falls in-line with the times. He likes to frequent the stale air in London’s underbelly, among the regular faces flush with booze, scrapping by in life, guiltlessly having his way with the town floozies.
Then there’s a conspicuous stranger that completes the line up. A Yank, Francis Tumblety (Harry Loeffler-Bell) sensitive and prone to offense, with little interest in typical mundane male affairs, floating far above vulgarity and “buggering” tawdry women. Searching for something, his mysterious silent ways befuddle everyone, even more so when he takes a personal interest in anyone expressing brutal honesty about the contradictions and futility surrounding life in industrial society.
When the Music Stops
Contrary to the male point-of-view, much of the story unfolds from the perspective of the women who would loose their lives at the hands of Whitechapel’s unknown killer. In their private moments with each other, the working women share kindnesses, concern, their meager possessions and hefty burdens. After the first of their circle falls to a vicious murder, with them we go deeper and deeper into fear’s mist, barely enduring reality as their loop grows narrower and narrower.
Each heroine exposes their inner most feelings before their moment of reckoning, leaving an unfortunate trail of crumbs back to the beaten road of circumstances leading to their dispossessed existences as working girls; each having been abandoned by their husbands and emotionally lacerated by the loss of their children. They yearn for some light of hope, elusive and shyly personified by Billy McDoogle (Drake Dorfner), the Whitechapel section’s street lantern attendant.
The Wheels Grind
Theater has always taken on the conundrums of human life, contemporaneously in current day theater it’s quite vogue get down right obscene. While keeping the obvious aesthetic and entertainment value of drama in the forefront, The Canonical Five of Jack the Ripper does present some content, social commentary and dialog that is not for the squeamish. In taking on the tough issues of gender relations, morality and poverty, in some of the scenes the players are clearly challenged with even dramatizing these topics. (not to worry this doesn’t relate to the on-stage portrayal of the fates of the victims, there is not one scene of dramatized violence)
All of the actors muster rousing performances in at least one scene, playing to their acting strengths. Amato and Figlesthaler maintain superb chemistry with each other and create tension with the other characters particularly well. Ditloff embodying haplessness, Erin coyness, and Whitford tragedy, take the limited moments available in their monologues to draw the audiences attention.
Nieman-Koebert’s character Margarette, an unlikely foil, keeps the down-beats from sinking too low. A bit jester-ish Witzlsteiner provides a character that is relateable to most. Loeffler-Bell is convincing, as a being that doesn’t quite fit in. Anderson, displayed quite a bit of stage presence and seasoning, keeping the pace of the show.
A Matter of Practice
Where as pressure has mounted in Milwaukee’s theater community to climb trees and dance in the street, as a production The Canonical Five of Jack the Ripper maintains a conventional approach, which is always interesting to watch, as it tries to say something relying purely on what the players can evoke with method and the personal approaches to character. A good story and show, the Alchemist’s current run appeals most to those with a taste for little suspense and naughty humor.
The Canonical Five of Jack the Ripper runs tonight in about five minutes, with closing weekend next Thursday, Friday and Saturday. All show times starting at 7:30p on the dot.