Given how few and far between women killers have been in history, as a culture we can’t look away when a murderess emerges. We’re fascinated—so much so that an up-close-and-personal story of women who murdered more than 100 years ago is exceptionally gripping.
The play “Murderess”, now at The New Vic, capitalizes on this phenomenon and offers a delightfully creepy and surprisingly fun evening of storytelling, which happens to be what the New Vic does best.
Anne Bertram’s 2011 historical fiction cum docudrama cum dark comedy with feminist undertones is a perfect fit for this theatre—presented at the spookiest time of year. With minimal yet effective staging, costumes (in black and red), set, props, and lights, James Furney capably directs four excellent actresses who, at turns, narrate the series of monologues and then embody the women who killed, each telling her own tale.
It’s a one-hour one-act that cuts several killers included in the original script, but an hour and four murderesses makes for a full evening of engaging entertainment.
Not only are these murderesses’ tales revealed, but narrators score the murders based on: quantity, planning, stealth, plausible deniability, coming out ahead, and a bonus criterion—turning the long-ago tragedies into a game of sorts.
Each monologue is distinct and uniquely structured as well as performed. Lizzie Borden is the most famous of the lot, and hearing her elucidate the motivation behind her murders through Anna Kuhn makes for a very compelling character. Her monologue plays on the children’s rhymes we likely all know but puts some heft behind the madness of her deeds. In this telling, she’s a bit haughty and spoiled, though Kuhn captures her complexity and makes us feel a bit sorry for the girl who felt scorned by her daddy for being too cheap to allow her the finer things she loved that he could afford.
Jennifer Furney is especially funny and Midwestern as the teller of Belle Gunness’s misdeeds—and misfortune. A little-known Norwegian-American serial killer, Gunness’s victims were both children and men on whom she cashed in on scads of insurance money. Though she’d moved to Indiana, she placed marriage ads in Chicago newspapers to lure wealthy men to her pig farm with the promise of her own money. But the farm burned to the ground and the bodies of her children as well as her decapitated corpse were discovered—with her farm hand and sometimes lover the prime suspect.
Deb Koppers’ Margaret Hossack, too, is Midwestern, and she lives to tell her tale while also tending to her children in her monologue. As she dreams up modest Christmas gifts for each child and helps them modify recipes for lack of sugar and eggs, Koppers convinces us that Hossack was merely a dutiful, loving mother pushed to the edge and that she was utterly justified in axe-murdering her abusive husband. And hearing Hossack tell her story is a different experience than witnessing reporter Susan Glaspell’s Des Moines Daily News Reports or the play she wrote based on those reports, “Trifles”, in which Hossack never speaks.
And perhaps the most well written and performed monologue of the evening comes from Jocelyn Furney as Laura Fair auditioning her oratory skills to Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton, who purportedly visited her while she was in prison for shooting her married lover. Temporary insanity was her defense, but she was found guilty and sentenced to hang. She was widely supported by suffragettes, the conviction was overturned, and she was acquitted. Furney is wonderfully poised and compelling in her telling.
Ultimately these stories are told more for entertainment than for moralizing or glamorizing, though with a wink and a nod, the play sympathizes with these criminals while also suggesting we’d all be wise to question our assumptions about what women are capable of. They offer that “beliefs can be dangerous—or useful, depending.”
The New Vic Theatre