Carson Kreitzer’s new script, currently produced by the Frank Theatre has a jokey title that is unexpectedly similar to the bipartite titles created for shows at the Brave New Workshop: SELF-DEFENSE, or death of some salesmen. Does Kreitzer often frequent the BNW? Unlikely though it may seem, considering the gruesome subject of her play (convicted mass murderer Aileen Wuornos, who left a string of bodies across Florida in the early ’90s), the answer is perhaps, and there is some evidence. Many elements of the show mirror features typical of a BNW production: multiple television screens featuring news reports, actors sitting and standing dangerously close to the audience, heavy dance club-style music playing during scene changes, scene overlapping and comedic acts interspersed throughout. In one of the first scenes, three coroners, after describing grisly details of several murder victims into microcassette recorders, rip off their white lab coats to reveal strippers’ attire and begin gyrating to the song “Suicide Blond”. Perhaps this BNW influence can be attributed to actress Kim Schultz (who plays several roles in this production) who has worked with BNW and currently teaches one of their improvisation classes.
Despite the play’s title, the men Aileen Wuornos killed weren’t salesmen. They were truck-driving johns who she allegedly murdered in self-defense and left on Florida’s I-75. She was not “America’s first serial killer” as she was commonly describedñwomen have been slashing their way through history as long as it has been recorded. Wuornos, however, was unusual in that her slayings were of a kind usually found among male mass murderers. Guns were her weapons of choice, not the poison typical of female serial killers; strangers, rather than family members, were her victims.
Kreitzer’s script renames Wuornos, calling her “Jo,” as the playwright did not set out to compose a biographical piece on Wuornos, but instead to use the events of her life solely as inspiration. Actress Phyllis Wright presents Jo as a troubled but regretful woman in a credible performance that unfortunately doesn’t fully materialize until late in the play. Wright’s Jo seems disconnected from the passion of the role until a series of heated courtroom scene in the last half of the performance. She rebuffs accusations on the stand with several long-winded, obscenity-filled backlashes.
“She had death row eyesñbut I liked her,” actor Tom Sherohman vaguely testifies as a squalid, meek former client of Jo’s, in one of the many characters he plays throughout the play. Sherohman is a scene-stealer, crafting indelible, eccentric performances, often simply with an astounding array of comical facial expressions.
The Wuornos of history claimed that her seven victims had raped her (some squirted volatile chemicals into her bodily orifices), so it was in self defense that she killed them, yet she also had boasted of having attended to the needs of approximately 250,000 johns. She also blamed the Gulf War for what has happened to her-details preserved in SELF-DEFENSE. All of these proclamations seem contrived, yet her story was so compelling and hyped by the media that Wuornos even appeared on trading cards.
This was a provocative case back in the early ’90s. Feminists rushed to support Wuornos while police wanted her executed. Kreitzer’s play doesn’t take a single viewpoint, however, but instead reveals the spare details of the historic events as they unfolded, exposing multiple perspectives of the case. It is all preserved in this play, from frightful remarks made by the police to the thoughts of a fanatical Christian who adopts Jo with the intention of saving her soul, claiming inspiration from Jesus. The play doesn’t offer any answers to the social tribulations posed by the subject, but poses myriad questions with the intention of probing our minds into the twisted world of the female serial killer. Additionally, for the particularly introspective, Frank Theatre offers panel discussion groups on Thursday nights following the performance for those that would like to share their thoughts and investigate deeper.
SELF-DEFENSE, or death of some salesmen plays through March 3 at the Playwrights’ Center, (612) 724-3760.