Killers will make your heart pound and head spin

By William Chyr

What do you get when you put on a play about five people living together who are all dancing on the edge of insanity, in a small and intimate theater setting? Answer: an insanely intense dramatic experience unlike anything else.

Going into Mary-Arrchie’s production of Killers by John Olive, I knew absolutely nothing about the play; I had never heard of the company, the playwright, or the play. I had simply chosen to review it because the title sounded pretty cool. I went into the theater with no idea of what to expect and came out blown away. I was grabbed by the neck and shaken around like a juice bottle.

Set in a squalid boarding house in the 1950s, the plot of Killers revolves around Charles Blackwell, a fiction writer having trouble finishing his latest novel, The Killer Inside Me, and the other residents, a group of people who all seem to be losing their minds. These include Earl, the shell-shocked war veteran; Lou, the psychotic, young, sleepwalking thug; Wanda, the love-deprived landlady; and Wanda’s ex-con husband, J.D. Events unfold as the love-hate relationships of the characters become strained, and their desires and violent intentions collide.

Directed by Robert Breuler, a member of the Steppenwolf Ensemble, this production has some of the best acting that I have ever seen—and I have seen a lot of plays. Each character is brought out fully as a multi-dimensional person, fighting between the personal desires and the restraints placed on him by his surroundings. Though the characters may be violent and despicable, you come to sympathize with them, and they stay in your mind long after the show is over.

Hans Fleischmann delivers a stunning performance as Lou, portraying vividly his frustration over his lack of ability to change his circumstances. Even with his character’s spontaneous mood swings and fits of violence, Fleischmann manages to maintain Lou’s sense of child-like innocence. In contrast to Lou, Earl—played by Joe Hudson—garners the audience’s sympathy right away as we see him struggling not only with Blackwell’s perpetual typing noises but also with his own nightmares of the war.

K. K. Dodds brings out the two sides of Wanda, portraying her both as a strict landlady searching for power and as a fragile woman scared of her husband and searching for love. Meanwhile, J.D., played by Karl Potthoff, can scare anyone with his menacing looks and tone of voice, even though he causes you to feel sorry for his confusion about what love is.

Finally, Richard Cotovsky adds to this already talented cast with his spectacular portrayal of the frustrated writer. Blackwell, who remains a somewhat mysterious figure throughout the play, is torn between his sympathy for the other characters and his need to keep himself distanced from the events that unfold. The tension between Blackwell and the others, especially Wanda, is brought out so strongly that you can feel it permeating throughout the room.

However, what makes this experience really special is the atmosphere, the physical setup of the theater. The set is realistic, showing a kitchen, hallway, and bedroom, but with the walls removed to give you a voyeuristic look at the characters’ lives. This, combined with the small theater space (it only seats 48), gives you a clear view of the actors’ faces. The intimacy of the play is strengthened by the lack of a stage platform and a setup where the actors enter and exit from the sides. You get the feeling that you are an overseeing presence with the action happening all around you.

There are times when the action gets so close that I found myself cringing in my seat with discomfort and fear, thinking: “Stay in your theater world; don’t come near mine. I don’t want to get involved,” only to realize that this is exactly the feeling the characters are experiencing. There were times when I was so drawn into the world of the play that I completely forgot that I was in a theater on the north side of Chicago. The play is an emotional roller coaster that takes you on a ride through the characters’ feelings.

For the hour and a half, my heart was pounding, and I walked out of the theater feeling disoriented and disjointed from reality. Would I say the play was enjoyable? Certainly not in the sense that it was “fun.” But it was intense, it was engaging, it played with my emotions, and it was an absolutely fantastic theatrical experience.