“The case ended on April the 23rd, 1931. The jury retired for an hour and a half. Peter was sentenced to death 9 times. The judge said that Peter’s crimes had been committed in cold blood, and that during the trial he had created the impression of cleverness, calmness, and considered deliberation. ‘Peter Kurten’, he said, ‘is normal’.”
As human beings, we define ourselves by that which we are not. Sometimes this distinction translates as a list of exceptional abilities: rational thought, language, building skyscrapers. Other times, it is what we don’t do that seems most critical to our distinction from the natural world: Humans don’t kill each other for fun. We don’t eat each other humans. We don’t engage in rape as our primary mode of procreation. And we certainly don’t destroy our young. That is, until one of those bleak and occasional moments when someone comes along who does. A nightmare figure who, by the sheer heinousness of their actions, commit what Noel Carroll famously called “category jamming…a breach of the norms of ontological propriety.” Put simply, these are the type of people who commit acts so vile that decent people who hear about them are inclined to say to themselves (most likely in self-assurance), “that person isn’t even human.”
Normal tells the true story of perhaps one of the most notorious of these “inhuman” figures: Peter Kurten. A German man who, at the time of his execution in 1931, had committed at least 9 homicides, as well as a string of rapes, attempted murders, assaults, and acts of arson. The great majority of these crimes were committed against women and young girls, and Kurten took a chilling delight in each and every one, famously reporting a spontaneous sexual climax during his murder of 9-year-old Rosa Ohliger with a pair of scissors. Now being mounted by Los Angeles-based theatre company The Vagrancy as part of the 2017 Hollywood Fringe Festival, Anthony Neilson’s unflinching script (which originally premiered in 1991) remains as subtly and poetically disquieting as any play you’re likely to see this year.
The play takes as its protagonist Justus Wehner, a good-hearted and idealistic attorney given the assignment of defending Peter Kurten. This case is seen as a “gift” to Wehner from his bosses at the law firm, both for its notoriety and relative ease. “After all,” Wehner tells us, “I did not have to prove him innocent, merely insane. And he was surely that.” As Wehner begins his partnership with Kurten, a series of conversations ensue between the two, in which Wehner attempts to uncover a narrative around the hideous details of Kurten’s crimes: What made Kurten this way? How did he lose his humanity? Was he born a monster, or turned into one? It is in the construction of these narratives that all human beings attempt to rationalize people like Peter Kurten away, and we bear witness to Wehner’s efforts to do the same. However, the more intimate the attorney becomes with Kurten and his world (including growing uncomfortably familiar with Kurten’s troubled wife), the more that those exclusionary designations like “insane” and “inhuman” become increasingly impossible to buy into. Peter Kurten, as played brilliantly by Steve Madar, reeks of intelligence, clarity, and even charm. The Vampire of Dusseldorf is, by all outward appearances, a human being. Faced with this fact, Wehner must ask himself: what does that say about human beings?
It cannot be overstated, however, that all of the uncomfortable questions in Normal would simply be words on a page without The Vagrancy’s theatrical prowess to bring them to life. The theatrical space is designed in a way that is both sparse and effective, primarily utilizing only a tattered brown curtain and a set of steps, surprisingly versatile in its on-stage uses. Perhaps most striking of all is the lighting, which designer Jenna Pletcher casts entirely from the sides of the stage and behind the curtain, creating an experience that is visually defined by the heavy, dark shadows that its script explores.
As for what happens within this beautifully designed space? Director David Mancini has delivered a play which speaks fluently in kinetic, grotesque visual poetry. While Normal is, at its core, a series of conversations between a small cast of characters, the production is never more alive than in its most expressionistic, aesthetically-driven moments. A retelling of one of Kurtin’s murders is set to the stiff, jerky movements of a woman in porcelain doll mask, an expository scene detailing the meeting of Peter and Frau Kurten is told through a delightfully morbid dance number, and so on. The most haunting of these sequences is saved for the latter half of the play, when atrocity and violence are no longer simply a subject for discussion, but are brought to life in painstaking detail before the audience’s eyes. To say any more than that would be to spoil this show stealing sequence, but suffice to say it felt like the temperature of the room dropped a few degrees by the time it was all over. The small, dedicated cast of Arthur Keng, Steve Madar, and Carolyn Deskin breathe life into all of these sequences, presenting us with sympathetic, terrifying, and maddeningly intense portrayals of characters that feel real, even when the audience might wish that they weren’t.
Normal is a confronting, unsettling, and at times legitimately scary piece of drama. It is not grisly in the way we might expect from a play about a notorious child killer, but instead takes a subtle approach. Through compelling performances, poetic flourishes, and of course Anthony Neilson’s incisive script, the play provokes its audience with hard questions about humanity, morality, and sanity that most of us would be quite comfortable never thinking about. As such, it is a Hollywood Fringe pick that is well worth seeking out this year, provided that one has the constitution for such things.
“Normal” made its West Coast debut as part of the Hollywood Fringe Festival on June 4th. The show runs for a limited engagement of four more dates: June 10th, 13th, 18th, and 24th. Tickets are available through the Fringe Festival’s official website.