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The Killer Inside

Dahmer play winningly discomforting

Photo: , License: N/A, Created: 2010:11:05 18:28:40

Will Manning (left) and Joseph Ritsch rehearse Apartment 213.

It takes a great deal of courage to stage a play like this. Nevermind the subject matter—the personal life of serial killer Jeffrey Dahmer—the nudity, and the multimedia approach. Apartment 213, named after Dahmer’s infamous abode, bravely ventures into a closeness with its characters and its audience. The result is both strangely satisfying and wholly unsettling.

The show introduces Dahmer (Joseph Ritsch, also the playwright) in a roundabout way, which works well since his status as a public figure needs no real introduction. He stands silently, chin to his chest, dressed in jeans and a button-down shirt, while the names and ages of his 17 victims flash in white letters on a large projection scene onstage. The text loop starts slowly enough to read, and gradually speeds up until the phrases bleed together and it flickers off. A television screen—the television screen in Dahmer’s living room—begins to play footage of a chocolate factory, like the one where the real-life Dahmer was employed.

It’s a strange beginning, one that may cast doubt into the minds of more conservative theatergoers, but just before it borders on uncomfortable, Ritsch’s Dahmer comes to life and explains himself. The rest of the play is similar, pushing the audience to the edge of confused disquiet just before a revelation. Props are arranged strategically so that they are not noticed until they’re needed; music from a speaker to the left of the stage signifies scene changes. Ritsch always plays Dahmer, but acting partner Will Manning takes on the role of many victims. At one point, Manning and Ritsch are in the apartment when Manning suddenly starts dancing like a crazed person. It’s totally weird and shocking, until Ritsch approaches him and offers him a drink, and you realize they’ve moved to a dance club. The pattern allows Apartment 213 to be surprising and dynamic with only one tiny set and two simply dressed characters.

And while Ritsch makes a convincing Dahmer, with shoulders perpetually hunched and muscles in his face twitching, it is Manning that gives the play its strength. He faces his acting challenges here with a humble confidence, and slides seamlessly from a dancing ravester in a club to a slippery drunken mess in Dahmer’s apartment, all while slowly losing his wardrobe until he’s naked and dead, slumped against Ritsch’s ashamedly loving shoulder.

The beauty of the play, aside from its modesty, is its largely successful attempt to make the story feel relevant today. Ritsch’s Dahmer is not a sadistic machine killing only for the pleasure of violence, but rather a man cast aside when a paralyzing fear of his own sexuality leaves him unable to connect. He’s profoundly lonely and entirely alone, and, cast in this light, appears a bit the victim himself in his gruesome murders of those whom he would most like to love. He sees himself as a savior, turning his young targets into angels before they can be corrupted by the sins of an unwelcoming society. It’s a simple show that does a lot with a little, and leaves its audience, perhaps too quickly, in a disturbed but somehow fascinating funk.

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