Something seems amiss from the moment John Malkovich strides onto the stage in Michael Sturminger’s devastatingly absurd and unnerving “The Infernal Comedy: Confessions of a Serial Killer.” Clad in a white suit and black polka-dot shirt and cracking jokes about the Vienna State Opera and finding parking in Los Angeles, you realize it’s the sound: It looks like Malkovich, but one of the most distinctive voices in contemporary film and theater is somehow askew.
When he refers to himself “like the governor of California, a living example of overcoming the Austrian accent,” we realize this is not Malkovich, but real-life Austrian serial killer Jack Unterweger, on tour to promote his autobiography. Malkovich perfectly nails the accent, as if speaking a second language with a few grammatical betrayals of his origins, mixing the sounds of “v” and “w” (“wisit,” instead of “visit”).
The musical chamber drama consists of eight monologues separated by — and occasionally overlapping — the virtuoso performances by two sopranos of arias by classical composers backed by the magnificent period instrument orchestra Wiener Akademie. The idea is credited to Birgit Hutter (who also designed the matronly floral print dress for Aleksandra Zamojska and a stunning crimson gown for Laura Aikin), music director Martin Haselbock, and Sturminger. Malkovich and Sturminger co-direct on a minimally designed stage, with just a desk, chair, lamp and stacks of Unterweger’s book, “Confessions of a Serial Killer.”
It’s a bizarre concept, but no less bizarre than Unterweger’s story.
“I’ve never been able to tell the truth,” Unterweger gleefully warns us early on, and we are never quite sure what to believe for the rest of the evening. Indeed, after railing about the disorganization of the event, complaining that the laptop he is given is a Mac when he is a PC person, he asks, “You want the truth? Look at the Internet: This is where the truth comes from.” He logs onto Wikipedia and reads the entry on himself, stating that the first sentence alone contains three lies that he planted there himself.
One particularly amusing rant deals with Unterweger’s sex life after his early release from prison in 1990, having served 15 years of a life sentence for manslaughter. He relates how he was endlessly pursued by women (“One paid my rent, another paid my electric”), also recounting a barrage of phone calls from strangers (“There were quite a few others who simply wanted to fuck a murderer”).
Between tales of his childhood, his start as a writer during his incarceration, and his career strangling prostitutes with their bras, are six lengthy, extraordinarily difficult operatic arias, mostly dealing with romantic betrayal and revenge, superbly sung and acted by Aikin and Zamojska. Sometimes they are left alone to act out their despair, other times they are toyed with by Unterweger, presented with flowers and a Sachertorte, or graphically strangled and left to die. One corpse is covered by the author with copies of the books he is hawking.
The plug on Unterweger’s sales pitch is ultimately pulled when he reaches the end of his Wikipedia entry: After being chased across two continents for the murders of at least 11 women in Austria, Prague and California, he was arrested and sentenced to life without parole; he hanged himself in his cell that night. Due to a freakish technicality in Austrian law, since he died before an appeal could be made, Unterweger remains officially innocent.
“Do you see why I can’t tell you the truth?” he asks.
Adapted from an earlier version staged in Los Angeles, “The Infernal Comedy” will be touring Europe for several months following its Vienna run; Malkovich is negotiating to bring the show to U.S. festivals next year.