You wonder how Dan Savage would respond to a letter from Nathan Leopold. Something like:” Dear Kid In Love Left Extremely Reckless: When your abusive boyfriend cancels your date to attend a Nietzsche study group– run! Dump this psycho and go to law school; you’ll find plenty of opportunities to explore your sub-dom fantasies there.” Alas, 1920s Chicago offered no such option, and the trial of Leopold and Loeb for the cold-blooded murder of a 14-year-old boy made history.
Thrill Me– the Leopold and Loeb Story, Stephen Dolginoff’s 2003 two-person musical, is an artful attempt to explain the how two privileged, intelligent college kids could commit the “crime of the century.” This handsome, well-mounted production is the inaugural show for Theatrical Tendencies, yet another new Milwaukee Theater company in a year of ambitious openings. TT aspires to focus on LGBT theater, but you don’t have to be gay to find a lot to like here. The show looks and sounds great: David Carter’s hanging array of old-style light bulbs creates the period, Kevin Czarnota’s lighting captures the moody ambiance of conspiracy; Sharon Sohner’s costumes are flawless, and Director Mark E. Shuster’s sculptural set conjures the abandoned haunts of secret trysts. Dan Harmon’s sound design is warm, full and never intrusive. In short, this production crew really knows their stuff.
Ditto the talented, charismatic cast. As the handsome Richard Loeb, Milwaukee regular Marty McNamee is chilling and believable, showing us a Mephistophelean mask, alternately charming and petulant, with the unrestrained grandiosity of an immature child — much in the line of pop culture psychopaths that has been well-traveled in recent years. As his besmitten lackey, UWM student Matthew Walton brings emotional intensity and impressive vocal training to the difficult job of making us believe that Leopold is so intoxicated he’ll do anything to satisfy the object of his passion– including taking an innocent life. Under the musical direction of Donna Kummer, the two singers bring blood to the competent, rather generic score, easily filling the intimate space of the Milwaukee Gay Arts Center.
The plays approach is extremely literal– perhaps to a fault. With titles like “Ransom Note” and “My Glasses,” the songs paint neatly within the story’s outlines to convey character, conflict, and dramatic tension. Dolginoff has obviously done his research, and his proposed solution as to why the “perfect crime” failed is clever and plausible. But the question “why?” escapes such a linear framework. By concentrating on the boy’s relationship, factors like family, social class, and the need to remain closeted are left in the shadows. Even their lust seems strangely muted, perhaps for lack of chemistry, or because their lovemaking is repeatedly portrayed with a single kiss and a blackout. Surely the narrative (if not prurient interest), dictates some exploration of the physical side of the relationship.
Sorry to drop names, but– in Nietzsche’s terms, this production is heavy on Apollo and light on Dionysus. The locked door at the heart of the tragedy remains unrattled. Maybe a more expressionistic, stylized, or visceral approach would bring us closer to the mystery. That’s something no state-of-the-art lighting system can furnish– only the power of bold theatrical imagination.
The dedicated folks of Theatrical Tendencies have pulled off their first show with technical savvy, professionalism and grace, instantly putting them in a league with In Tandem, Milwaukee Chamber Theater and the Rep’s Stackner Cabaret shows– that’s no small accomplishment. Let’s pray to Dionysus that, now that they’ve got the nuts and bolts figured out, they can outdo those companies and take their shows into the glorious, impossible spaces of truly adventurous theater.
Thrill Me– the Leopold and Loeb Story plays September 17, 18, 24, 25, and October 1 & 2, 2010
at the Milwaukee Gay Arts Center, 703 S. 2nd Street, Milwaukee, 8:00. Tickets are $25 at the door, $20 advance online