Playwright/actor Joseph Ritsch ventures into the mind of a serial killer
Published: November 3, 2010
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Getting Joseph Ritsch to talk about Sunrize Highway is a little like getting James Gandolfini to talk about Tony Soprano. For 15 years, Ritsch has woven his one-man drag persona—based loosely on Liza Minnelli—into his dancing and acting career. “It’s been a great run,” he says with a shrug. “I loved doing it.” Now in his third year at Towson University’s MFA program in acting, directing, and playwrighting, Ritsch is ready to shift from Broadway diva to serial killer.
Starting this weekend, Ritsch stars in the premier of his first full-length play, Apartment 213, staged by his new theater company Iron Crow Theatre. If “apartment 213” doesn’t ring a bell, consider yourself lucky. It’s the Milwaukee, Wisc., address of Jeffrey Dahmer, necrophiliac, cannibal, serial killer, and chocolate-factory worker.
As Ritsch readily acknowledges, he’s not the first person to come up with a Dahmer project. Among serial killers, after all, Dahmer has star quality. Dahmer’s media spotlight shone brightest in the early 1990s, when he got arrested, confessed to the murder of 17 gay men, and was sentenced to more than 900 years in jail. His 1994 interview with NBC’s Stone Phillips, notable for his thoughtful discussion of cannibalism, offered a peek into his mind. Dahmer met a sudden end that same year, at the hands of another convict.
Since then, several documentaries have been made about the killer. Dahmer’s father wrote a book about raising his kid, and both a biopic and, according to Ritsch, a musical have been made. So when Ritsch took up the project, he had Dahmer’s celebrity status as a serial killer to deal with. “I don’t want it to turn into another bad TV movie,” he says. “So I’ve purposefully left out the blood and gore.”
Of course, blood and gore is a little hard to forget when dealing with Dahmer. Not only did he lure many of his victims to his Milwaukee apartment, he killed them, raped them, disemboweled them, carved them into pieces, cooked them, and refrigerated the leftovers, usually in that order. For Ritsch’s purpose, though, the story of a reclusive, gay chocolate factory worker gives an audience a chance to pause and step back from the horror and explore his personality.
To prepare for this, Ritsch delved into transcripts of the trial, Dahmer’s confession, and several of his interviews. There, he says, Dahmer reveals a personality that was desperate for companionship and incapable of an extended relationship.
“In his testimony, Dahmer said that there were times when he knew what he was doing was wrong, but couldn’t help it,” Ritsch says. Apartment 213 tries to open up that space, or the moments when Dahmer decided to kill his victims.
Ritsch hesitates to use terms such as “movement theater,” but borrows from different media to recreate that mindset. “I wanted to create this fantasy world using words, lights, video, and movement and where we get to the point where he’s actually making a decision as a human being,” he says. Apartment 213 focuses on several tipping points in a bizarre life.
That dynamic—where Dahmer finds himself attracted to, but can’t interact with, a living human being—is what Apartment 213 tries to capture, instead of the “Milwaukee monster” of folk mythology. While he was writing the play, Ritsch says, he was “thinking of what it would be like to be someone who can’t interact with someone unless they’re a complete zombie.” Ritsch emphasizes that he’s not trying to sympathize with Dahmer. “I’m just trying to fantasize about what would have happened if he’d had a few minutes to think about the decisions he made.”
As he moves into the thoughts and humanity of the killer, Ritsch is also trying to dig deeper into broader social issues. Dahmer made a name for himself as the AIDs crisis was sweeping the nation. “This isn’t just about homophobia,” Ritsch says. “It’s about the homophobia that one gay man feels against others.” And there are other social elements of these murders that Ritsch wants to explore: why the murders went unsolved and uninvestigated for so long, and why the local gay community took little action at the time.
In an effort to get people talking, Ritsch says, Iron Crow Theatre will be bringing more shows like this one to the Baltimore area. Co-founded by Ritsch, Steven J. Satta (artistic director), Paul Wissman (managing director), Katie Ellen Barth (associate director), and Will Manning (who plays Dahmer’s father and victims in the play), the theater group wants to focus on GLBT stories. Ritsch and Iron Crow Theatre hope to fill in a gap in Baltimore’s theater scene, and, in the process, provoke more dialogue about the subject of sexual identity. “The stage is a place where you can do that,” Ritsch says. “And we want to use it that way.”