Having toured around the world for a year and a half, The Infernal Comedy: Confessions of a Serial Killer ends its run with a four-show stand at BAM’s Howard Gilman Opera House as part of the Next Wave Festival this week. Conceived by conductor Martin Haselböck, actor John Malkovich, and writer-director Michael Sturminger, The Infernal Comedy is a stage play with Baroque music that stars Malkovich as real-life Austrian serial killer Jack Unterweger, who spent fifteen years in prison for murdering a woman, wrote a bestselling autobiography (Purgatory) while behind bars, then became a cause célèbre in his home country, leading to his parole. Once back out on the street, he became a journalist, helped the police, wrote plays, and, well, he was a serial killer, after all, so…. The show’s conceit is that Unterweger has returned fifteen years after his death with a new book, which he is presenting to the audience in the form of a special event, a reading and discussion backed by the thirty-one-piece Orchester Wiener Akademie (conducted by Haselböck) and featuring a trio of elegantly dressed sopranos (Marie Arnet, Kirsten Blaise, Marlene Grimson) who sing arias by Mozart, Vivaldi, Gluck, Beethoven, Haydn, and others and pose as women from Unterweger’s life.
Wearing white shoes, white slacks, a white jacket, and a dark shirt and sunglasses, Unterweger considers himself a ladies’ man, even walking into the audience to charm a few fans, asking them about their sex life. Women “have always been my determination, my world, my paradise, my desolation, and my fate,” he explains in his Austrian accent, later adding, “They can really make me lose my mind!” Searching for the truth, he also notes that a smile is a lie, and over the course of the evening, he smiles a lot. Despite being the star of the show, Unterweger is sometimes part of the audience as well, watching the supertitles as the women sing or bringing one of the sopranos a bouquet of flowers and a sacher torte. However, he also places a bra around their chests and simulates strangling them as everyone watches, not doing anything about it, much like what happened after he got out of prison. One of the most powerful moments occurs when one of the sopranos sings Vivaldi’s “Sposa son disprezzata” and Unterweger, who was just talking about his mother, who abandoned him, rests his head against the woman’s belly and reaches up to grab her breasts, a scene both titillating and frightening, getting right to the heart of Unterweger’s Madonna-whore complex. Malkovich is captivating as the smarmy, clearly deranged madman, embodying the role with extra relish. The music and singing are quite lovely; keep an eye on Haselböck, who often shares his feelings about what’s going on in front of him with simple and funny gestures. The Infernal Comedy is an intoxicating production from three talented men who are already in the midst of their next collaboration, The Giacomo Variations, in which Malkovich will star as Casanova, set to the music of Mozart.