Saturday, June 22, 2019

'White City Murder' brings past gruesomeness and glitz together under the Phoenix tent.

Amanda Hummer and Ben Asaykwee illustrate the pizazz of a show with a World's Fair setting.
The weird pull of human awfulness — serial murder division  — gets a song of its own in "White City Murder," a two-actor,  cabaret-style show that just entered its second weekend at Phoenix Theatre.

Mass killings have become part of our weekly news diet, it seems, but slaughtering a bunch of strangers in one place lacks the shimmering aura of knocking off one fellow human being after another, sometimes taking years to do so, favoring different methods and settings. That's fascinated people for decades, and pop culture has been quick to pick up on the attraction. How and why does a person construct an autobiography around killing people indefinitely?

Ben Asaykwee, the guru of classic macabre in his popular "Cabaret Poe" presentations, moves into a dramatic spectacle even more concentrated and intense with "White City Murder." Reveling in the hype and promise of progress that the 1893 Chicago World's Fair represented to our ancestors, Asaykwee focuses with relish on the discrepancy between that event and the murderous career of H.H. Holmes, who centered his homicidal genius a few miles away from that global exhibition's "White City" briefly and consequentially.

The cast list has Asaykwee as Mudgett, the Dickensian surname Holmes originally bore, and Amanda Hummer as Henry,  which is what the first H in his assumed name stands for. But those are just convenient labels for the array of characters the two partners in crime assume in the course of the 100-minute show. Their shifting identities, donned and doffed with fast-paced mastery, bring to life Holmes' prismatic identity, his kith and kin, and, in cameo format, celebrities who visited the exciting scene.
The dark side of "White City Murder" pops up continually.

The one song alluded to above teases the audience for sharing in the general fascination with serial killers. True to Asaykwee's brand, there are several other points at which Hummer and Asaykwee address and toss asides at the spectators. The show's creator typically hates to close off direct communication with those in the seats, which were filled Friday night in the Phoenix's black-box Basile Stage.

Holmes' values are given forthright expression, sometimes to further acquaint us with his self-involved attitude toward life, sometimes to toy with a predominant American cynicism about wealth and any chance to take advantage of others that we are tempted not to pass up. Lyrics that verge on inspired doggerel often carry a Brechtian sting.

Asaykwee and Hummer use a loop machine to create brief ostinatos that are then layered to provide accompaniment to the songs. The patterns are fascinating in both their creation and their simultaneous use as the songs roll out. Asaykwee's direction also brings to bear some choreographic pizazz that exemplifies the energy of an optimistic America.

On the other hand, what used to be known as the Gay Nineties was also a time of economic distress and social disturbances. Without getting obsessed with authenticity, the musical and dance idioms drawn upon have a timeless quality that display the ongoing relevance of the show's themes. Presumably, we are not all potential serial killers, but Americans perpetually bear traces of an urge to overthrow norms, to sail under their own flags, and to find a place in the sun for themselves with various degrees of regard for others, sometimes nil.

Asaykwee is especially skillful in weaving into his entertainment an abundance of facts about Holmes' life and about the World's Fair. These are packed into the songs and often carried by means of what would be known in an opera as recitative. Spoken dialogue plays a small but essential role in some scenes.

With his deft falsetto topping a wide vocal range, Asaykwee is an apt partner for the versatile and often brassier Hummer, a creditable Ethel Merman in power and diction for our times. The couple's variety of facial expression helps convey the show's wide emotional compass — from goofy exuberance to deadly suspicion, mistrust, and betrayal.

On the technical side, Michael Moffatt's bright urban backdrop uses lights to outline characteristic urban Fair forms — including the Ferris wheel, one of that event's enduring innovations — as if they were heavenly constellations in an earthly paradise. Laura Glover's lighting design covers the spectrum, and, with its touches of foreboding, reminds us that the White City's winking artificial illumination isn't enough to throw light upon dark corners of the human soul. "White City Murder" manages that in a way that is oddly upbeat, offering insights without being overly insistent. The cleverness and brio of the whole package carry the day.

[Photos by Zach Rosing]

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