It’s the most wonderful time of the year. That’s right, Halloween season. Every horror fiend – and even the casual fan – is looking for a good scare to get themselves in the mood. If you’re in the Los Angeles area, look no further than the Whitefire Theatre in Sherman Oaks where VILLAINY OR HH HOLMES’ OWN STORY is playing on Wednesday nights now until November 7th. Writer John Strysik and director Jeff G. Rack have created a chillingly intense show with a small but mighty cast of incredibly talented players.
The story is based upon the real-life confessions of America’s first known serial killer, Herman Webster Mudgett, better known by his alias, Henry Howard Holmes. As the audience take their seats in the small black box theater, Holmes (played by Eric Keitel) and a cellist (Jennifer Novak Chun) sit on stage setting an eerie mood. Keitel, as Holmes is already deeply in character as he scribbles notes in his journal while the cello music played by Chun creates a haunting atmosphere. As the play opens, we see Holmes awaiting trial for murder, to be hanged if he is found guilty. Flashes of Holmes’ murder victims walk swiftly behind him and the soundscape for this is quite frightening. Holmes is haunted by his conscience (played by Tor Brown) who provides the audience with both an insight into Holmes’ real character as well as some much needed comic relief sprinkled sporadically throughout the show. The two actors have excellent chemistry and play off of each other in a way that is both enlightening to the viewer as well as maddening at times. Holmes’ many victims (portrayed by Jennifer Novak Chun, McKenzie Eckels, Nathalie Rudolph, and Tanya Raisa) are but innocent pawns in his twisted game of bloodlust and manipulation, each believing in his true love and dedication. Keitel does a superb job of playing a sociopath, gaslighting his lovers and eventually killing them in a variety of maniacal ways. The chorus of actresses, each who portray multiple victims of Holmes, have a wide range for portraying young wives of Holmes to younger children and more. The talent of these actors is matched perfectly with the set design, costumes, sound, and lighting as well in order to bring this chilling tale to life.
One of the most notable parts of the show is the first time the theater goes completely dark as Holmes locks one of his wives in a vault. Though the separation between the actors onstage and the audience remains for most of the show, it is an integral part of the show that brings the audience deeper into the story and makes them feel as if they themselves are trapped inside with the murder victim. This claustrophobic and frightening feeling pairs well with the sounds of the victim’s cries as she begins to lose air and, eventually, her life. The set and props are limited to a desk and chair and a freestanding wall that doubles as Holmes’ apothecary. It is interesting to see how the actors make use of the set, miming certain props in a way that makes the audience truly believe that they are seeing what isn’t there. In this way, it is as if Holmes’ character is not only gaslighting his victims but also the viewer. For example, the scene in which Holmes is identifying a corpse and noting the unique markings on the body, it was difficult not to recoil in disgust as he described peeling back fingernails and cutting off warts, despite the fact that there was no body there at all and the actor was simply miming the actions. The costume design is also remarkable in its simple yet effective portrayal of the look of the time period of the late 1800s. The different outfits worn by each woman give life to each character before they meet their tragic death. For example, the 15-year-old female murder victim’s large hair bow was of particular interest to me in that it truly made the character look young and innocent, which appealed to my sympathies and made her gruesome death all the more tragic.
VILLAINY manages to do a lot with very little relying heavily on the audience’s imagination to fill in the gaps. There is something to be said about what you don’t see in this play and how that can often be considerably scarier than any bloodbath or outright jump scene. The play runs Wednesday nights at the Whitefire Theatre in Sherman Oaks, California until November 7th and tickets are $25 per person. As a native Angelino, I’d recommend arriving early to find parking in either a nearby valet lot or, if you are lucky, at a meter on the street. Bring your appetite for horror as this play truly delivers an unforgettably fearsome experience.