Murder, mystery, mayhem—and Jack the Ripper—take the Vancouver Fringe Festival
Late afternoon sunlight illuminates a brightly coloured mural in the basement of a Gastown building. The faint sounds of summer float in through a door that opens onto a simple courtyard, affording something like a breeze to the sweaty company bumping up against the end of a daylong rehearsal for their Vancouver Fringe Festival production. Director Matt Clarke is leading his cast through a sensory exercise as everybody walks around the room, eyes closed, calling out smells and feelings that create a sense of place: London in 1888.
“I feel cobblestone beneath my feet.”
“I smell piss.”
“I can see the glow of the factory fire in the skyline.”
“I feel afraid.”
Make that terrorized. This is, after all, a rehearsal for Jack the Ripper, a factually accurate retelling of one of the most famous and frightening unsolved serial-murder cases in the world. This production is a new work by local playwright, actor, and “Ripperologist” Robert J. McLaughlin, author of the 2003 nonfiction book The First Jack the Ripper Victim Photographs. When Clarke somewhat reluctantly asks, “Um, how long does it take you to asphyxiate?” McLaughlin replies immediately: “Seconds.” Creepy.
His lifelong obsession started at an early age.
“I’ve been living with the story since 1979,” he says, pulling up a chair alongside costar Matt Reznek. “I was a precocious kid. When others were reading comic books, I was reading true-crime magazines. I’m interested in historical true crime, not just Jack the Ripper, but all of it.”
But there’s a reason the Ripper case has cast the longest shadow. To this day people still obsess over the grisly, horrific nature of the murders. The crimes occurred primarily in the Whitechapel district of London in 1888, and claimed the lives of at least five women, all of whom were viciously attacked and mutilated with a knife, some of whom had body parts, even internal organs, removed. Additional murders continued to 1891, but it’s still a matter of dispute as to whether these women were killed by the Ripper.
McLaughlin has spent the better part of his life chasing these ghosts, reading, interviewing, digging for anything new on the world’s most unsolvable case. In this time, he says, he’s come to feel like he has a better idea of who the women were than who their killer was. As such, the women’s stories and humanizing them are key components of McLaughlin’s play.
“I want this to be a different Jack the Ripper than anyone has ever experienced,” McLaughlin says. “They think they may know it from film or what they’ve read, but I want to give them a better historical perspective… As well as a fucking entertaining show, too.”
“Bloody entertaining!” Reznek jokingly corrects his costar. Reznek, who plays the Ripper and numerous other characters, didn’t need much persuasion to sign on. The story of Jack the Ripper had always fascinated him as well, and McLaughlin’s script sealed his decision.
“What really spoke to me reading the piece was Jack could have been just any normal guy,” Reznek says. “That’s what’s different about our piece. It’s different from all those other movies you’ve seen, like From Hell with Johnny Depp, which was this huge conspiracy theory and it’s like the Royal Family’s fault or something political like that. It’s easy to get caught up in the mystique of it all, the fantastical-ness. But what excited me about playing this character is he was just a guy and underneath was all of this darkness.”
That darkness is a pervasive theme at this year’s Fringe (which runs from Thursday [September 5] to September 15 on and around Granville Island). Murder, mystery, and mayhem pack the program, which includes two very different dark comedies, Butt Kapinski and Dirk Darrow: NCSSI.
On the surface, Kapinski and Darrow share a number of similarities. Both are interactive solo shows about private detectives, they’re both comedies, and they each borrow heavily from film-noir tropes. But only one wants to make its audience participate in a plethora of perversions.
“Probably the things that people notice about Butt Kapinski is the childlike joy I take in really sick shit,” creator-star Deanna Fleysher says with a laugh over Skype from L.A.
Fleysher describes Kapinski as a gender-confused idiot who fancies herself a male PI living in a noir world, sculpted in the fashion of Raymond Chandler’s Philip Marlowe. The comedy, which finds Fleysher venturing into the crowds with a light strapped to her back (the only light in the entire show), provides all the key buzzwords—it’s obscene, sinful, sexy, violent—for those who enjoy toying with the dark side.
“I love delighting with a group of people over murder and sexual abuse, all that kind of fun stuff,” Fleysher jokes.
Dirk Darrow, on the other hand, takes its delights from an entirely different source: illusions, mind reading, and sleight of hand. Tim Motley, the American-born, Australian-based man behind the award-winning show promises supernatural-noir-magical-comic murder mystery unlike anything else.
“I’d like to say that I had a crush on Humphrey Bogart, but it’s not true,” Motley says over Skype from IndyFringe in Indianapolis about the inspiration behind his seemingly unwieldy concept. “I came at it first from a Tricky Trixie angle of being a magician. It was an ambitious thing to do, an actual show with a beginning, middle, and end, a story and plot like a normal play, except use magic in it as a support mechanism, much like CGI is used in the movies. I’d never heard of such a thing being done and I’d done magic all my life, so I looked into it and couldn’t find anything anywhere. I found one thing in a forward from Teller, from a book by Penn & Teller, who I respect enormously, saying, ‘I’ve seen this attempted a few times. It cannot be done.’ Gauntlet thrown!”
From the historical horror of Ripper to the crazed depravity of Butt Kapinski and the mysterious magic of Dirk Darrow: NCSSI, wherever you happen to fall on the bloodlust spectrum, the Fringe has you covered.