Play invites sympathy for ruthless murderer

Freelance Article – October 2011

Play invites sympathy for ruthless murderer

Film director, Tim Robbins, may have done it in his critically acclaimed film, Dead Man Walking, but still, it is an audacious pursuit to ask an audience to sympathize with a ruthless murderer. Play director, Dr. Clayton Jevne, a cornerstone of Victoria’s theatre community, does just that in Love Kills, a play-cum-rock-concert by American playwright, Kyle Jarrow. Presented by the capable Theatre Inconnu troupe that did the show a year ago, Love Kills looks sympathetically at Charlie Starkweather and Caril Fugate, the real-life teen lovers who went on an 11-victim killing spree in 1958 in Wyoming and Nebraska.

The legendary murders at the hands of two teenage lovers have inspired films such as Badlands, Natural Born Killers as well as songs like Bruce Springseen’s Nebraska. The countless works based on these events are not merely a testimony to our society’s fascination with violence, but rather to our need to find an explanation for such unthinkable acts. Those who like to break with convention and who don’t mind having their morals challenged will want to see this captivating show. The actual murders are not depicted, but moments of horror strike nevertheless, when you realize that you understand, even identify with the killers.

Love Kills begins with the capture of Charlie and Caril who then spend one night in custody awaiting the arrival of a lawyer. Sherrif Karnopp and his wife, Gertrude, try to garner their confessions and attempt to get Caril to claim Charlie forced her to take part. The whole process provides a window into the lives of all four characters, and draws parallels between the two relationships. The older couple faces the emptiness in their own marriage as they begin to recognize the unadulterated devotion in the young lovers. “As the killers’ relationship comes together, the relationship of the Sherriff and his wife begins to come unravelled,” Said Cam Culham, who played the Sherriff.

The four University of Victoria alumni that made up the cast all acted and sang well, however Branden Bailey and especially Marina Lagace stood out with the strongest execution of both character and song (despite problems with Bailey’s microphone during the first two songs). Lagace’s haunting performance as 14-year-old Fugate went from teenage sass to anaesthetized anger to heart-wrenching confusion with the kind of authenticity that rips apart the audience’s heart and then puts it back together again.

Caril, in a moment of vulnerability played exquisitely by Lagace, asks if her parents are there when she’s taken into custody. Like any young child, Caril can’t grasp the finality or consequences of her extreme actions. She asks to see them even though it was she who helped murder them.

The minimalist production is peppered with delicious moments of black humour. Charlie’s first victim was a store clerk. He was trying to buy a teddy bear for Caril on credit, since he didn’t have enough cash, but the clerk refuses to let him, saying he is a freak. When Caril disapproves of the murder, Charlie says his actions prove the lengths to which he is willing to go for her. “Well, do you have it?” Caril asked expectantly of the teddy bear. “Have what?” said Charlie.

“It was just brutal to see how Charlie went from rage to confusion to love so suddenly,” says Jane Edler-Davis, a professional musican, who attended the production. Charlie is rejected by the world and tormented by a ‘death feeling’ that seems to sum up his unexpressed aggression at the world. One day he snaps and starts killing people, which he claims proves his love for young Caril. “It’s the only thing as real as our love, Charlie says in reference to committing murder. “Charlie spoke like an evangelical preacher when he talked about why he did it,” said audience member, Hermann Edler, who is a local artist and art designer.

The music in Love Kills is real bona fide rock performed by a ready-made band: The Party on High Street. It is reminiscent of American Idiot and its roster of Green Day songs. Without a single page of music, nor a conductor, the rock trio was satisfyingly tight. Unfortunately, the bass guitar was too quiet, which sometimes prevented the music from sounding as full as it could have been. Each song turned the show into a rock concert complete with robotic stage lights and lead vocalists who passionately gripped their SM58 microphones. The punk-influenced music, called “emo,” is a well-matched conduit for the many conflicted emotions of the young rebels. It didn’t seem as well-matched, however, for the two older characters.

The music was effective and well-executed, but Jevne’s staging for the songs was awkward, requiring the players to remove themselves from the scene once the music started, then traipse upstage to front the band. “We tried to think about staging it more as traditional musical theatre,” said Jevne, “but the script is not written well for that – and while it didn’t work 100 percent staging it this way, it would have been much worse the other. So we just decided to have fun with the songs, and remove them from the reality of the drama. More like other people singing about themes in the play.”

The real-life Charlie and Caril may have been different from the fictional versions presented in Love Kills. “Charlie in the play was not a sociopath,” said Bailey. “He probably would have turned out fine if he had the right love and care.” The sympathetic presentation of Charlie offers the audience a possible explanation for unimaginable events.

These historic murders can be seen as an extreme example of the transitional angst of America as it broke free from strict social confines of the 1950’s in favour of freedom of expression in the 1960’s. These years saw the emergence of the teenage identity that rejected authority, greased back its hair, watched Rebel Without a Cause, and felt entitled to whatever it fancied.

Love Kills points to Starkweather and Fugate’s sad circumstances and defective homes as the explanation for their shocking acts of violence. “[The play] doesn’t excuse them at all,” said Jevne, “but it does try to shed some light [on] why we as a society need to make sure children are loved and taken care of, and learn empathy at a young age.”

by Kathy Alexander