What is it that makes us find Victorian murders so juicy, fascinating and macabre? And also so irresistibly funny? Is it the formal outfits, the contrast between butchery and Victorian prudery, the era's fascination with death and the supernatural, or just the passage of time? With The Three Faces of Doctor Crippen, Emily Schwartz has written a comic, stylized little piece about Dr. Harvey Crippen, an American homeopath who settled in London with his showgirl bride, Cora — a remarkably irritating and untalented woman. In England, he promptly fell in love with his demure secretary, Ethel. When she told him she was pregnant, he decided to poison Cora and cut her into little bits in the bathtub. Then he fled for Canada with Ethel, who was disguised as a boy. Accounts of the case dutifully tell us that Crippen was the first suspect to be apprehended with the help of wireless communication, so that's his claim to fame. That, and some titillatingly gory details: a pit full of human organs — heart, liver, intestines, stomach, all presumably Cora's — found in the basement of his house, the single scarred piece of flesh by which police supposedly identified the corpse.
In Schwartz's version, though, there are three Crippens, all with mustaches. It's Private Crippen, rather sweetly played by Michael Bouchard in this Catamounts production, whose love for Ethel is pure. Well, pure-ish. Jason Maxwell's Public Crippen tries to maintain a face of propriety and innocence, while Jeremy Make's Fantasy Crippen represents the ghoulish and unrestrained id and has the most fun. There's also a strange chorus of three women, given to chanting, hopping, sidling across the stage and assuming various disguises as they spy on the Crippens and encourage the bobbies in the chase. Bits of poetry in which "doctor" rhymes with "lobster" and "liquor" with "sicker" somehow get threaded into the mix. Music Hall meets Grand Guignol meets experimental theater meets the musical Chicago.
The whole production is original and very entertaining, but it's Meridith C. Grundei — small, graceful, dark, pouty and vivacious — who brings the stage to life every time she enters as Cora. Her strange little jumps and off-key singing when Cora performs (while audience members exclaim, "She's truly dreadful") are one of the evening's high points. And so is her murder, which seriously pisses her off.
Three Faces of Doctor Crippen
Presented by the Catamounts through February 18, Buntport Theater, 717 Lipan Street, 720-468-0487, http://thecatamounts.wordpress.com.
Not all of the acting is at this level, but overall, the production is clean and well done. The Catamounts is a relatively new company, founded in 2010 by Amanda and Ben Berg Wilson, who had been working with the Chicago performance group Striding Lion for a decade. Their intention is to promote arts education and innovative performance; judging by this lively, cheeky piece, they're a very welcome addition to the scene.
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By the way, American scientists, using contemporary techniques, have cast serious doubt on Crippen's guilt, and some of his surviving relatives want his name cleared. Turns out that scarred scrap of flesh was male.