May 20, 2003

Exploring the mind of a homosexual psycho killer

With a clamoring thud, the curtains rise, and a tale of mortality, sexuality, and obsession grips the audience for a 90-minute thrill ride. The journey takes the form of a one-act play by Jim Grimsley, who many remember from his play Dream Boy. He has teamed up with the About Face Theatre Company for the world premier of his newest play, Fascination, about a homosexual serial killer whose internal struggles turn what seems to be a kind young man into a monstrous killer.

The play stars Mark Montgomery as Randall Bartelman, a frustrated man whose desires manifest themselves in violent killings. It is one of the many plays put on by About Face Theatre Company, a group of acting professionals dedicated to "examining the universe in the most particular stories about gender and sexual identity." Indeed, Fascination is very particular and unique in its ability to tell two stories of psychological turmoil at the same time. The first is a story of sexual maturity and aggression; the second, one of mental psychosis, frustration, and violent desires.

The character of Randall Bartleman is described as "based largely on Jeffery Dahmer and John Wayne Gacy," two infamous serial killers. Much to the credit of both playwright and actor, the character of Bartleman is able to portray homicidal characteristics through body language and little dialogue. From the very first scene, where the audience witnesses one of Randall's forty murders, the character's internal conflicts are visible, yet subtle. Montgomery, an experienced actor with numerous Chicago theatre credits to his name, brilliantly pulls off a difficult part. Randall is the quiet type-someone no one ever suspected of murder. At the same time, no one ever suspected him to be a homosexual either. Many of the supporting characters, such as Mrs. Neighbor, played by Patricia Kane, highlight Randall's internal struggle by providing realistic reasons why this nice quiet boy turned into a vicious killer.

The play is 90 minutes and goes back and forth between flashbacks of Randall's first murder and his current trial. Mr. Pundit, played by Scott Duff, is the TVnews reporter (an obvious satirical critique of shows such as America's Most Wanted, A&E Biography and 20/20) who interviews Randall about the murders. Duff overplays the character well, as he tries to probe the mind of this mysterious man. Their dialogue, however, is not where the audience truly grasps the inner workings of this killer. It is in the body language, the silence, and the ever-so cautious expressions that such information is revealed.

Other notable characters include Randall's parents, played by Patricia Kane and Ted Hoerl. The actors' ability to highlight the domestic influences on Randall with subtle humor is quite effective and joyful to watch. In many scenes they steal the show. And yet, at the same time, they hint that their subject matter isn't so funny. Their dialogue address both the question of how their parenting could have turned Randall into a killer, and in some degree, how their parenting could have affected his sexual orientation. The play is very much a dual observation on the complexity of both sexuality and violent aggression. "Our idea was to examine the obsession our culture clearly has with this modern form of monster, and to make a story that would attempt to take the audience into the mind of one of these people," said playwright Jim Grimsley. At every moment when a character mentions that they can't believe that Randall was a murderer, one could substitute the word "gay" for serial killer.

The character's victims are all young gay boys whom he either seduces and then kills, or kills and then sexually abuses. Randall picks them especially because they seem vulnerable, desperate, and lonely. His homicidal tendencies are an attempt to exert power in a manner that he never could at home. The audience sees how he lures his victims by watching his first murder and the events leading up to it. Victor Hill, played by James McKay, is a lonely teen who was recently outed by his mother, played by the talented Millicent Hurley-Spencer. McKay is a fine actor whose talents shine as he innocently flirts with Randall, unaware of what is about to occur.

The scenes leading up to the murder are intense, graphic, and will not appeal to all audiences. Indeed the sexually violent and aggressive nature of the scenes was sometimes too intense for this viewer. It may be difficult to watch, but it is both brief and vital to the structure of the play. To Grimsley's credit, the play frequently deals with such drama with a humorous touch.

Part of this humor comes from Holly Marie Nations, an obsessive Christian convinced of Randall's innocence and dedicated to his release from jail. The talented Amy Matheny beautifully acts out a character whose ignorance is meant to be a reminder of those in the world who still view homosexuality as a disease that can be cured, and view pathological psychosis as benign. While adding great humor to the play, her character also reminds us of the serious nature of homophobia. She ardently believes that Randall is neither a serial killer, nor gay, and will do anything to convince herself of this.

The play, which was held at the Theatre Building Chicago, made excellent use of the small stage by having characters and set changes come in on moving platforms from the wings. While simple, the scenery was effective nonetheless. The score was a haunting addition to the intensity of the scenes. Overall, the powerful nature and serious subject matter was clearly presented, while leaving room for humor and farce.

Fascination, which runs through June 1, is an important play about life, death, and how internal conflict can manifest itself in violence. While not every viewer will be able to appreciate the subtle messages of Grimsley's drama, it is nonetheless important that all who question mankind's own mortality grapple with Fascination.