Evil Cheez Productions is letting the audience serve as the jury in a fascinating theatrical trial of one of history’s worst serial killers, in their original, world-premiere production of Bluebeard: the Trial of Gilles de Rais, running the next two weekends at the Historic Lowry House in downtown Huntsville. Any original script is going to have its rough edges, and premiere performances tend to be a bit bumpy while the “right” production elements are discovered. This production, however, which is both original and a premiere, doesn’t feel like either. It is a fascinating, macabre glimpse into a little-known historical figure, which keeps you riveted in your seat.
de Rais is possibly the most fascinating historical character you’ve never heard of. He would classify as infamous, but these days the “Bluebeard” moniker unfortunately makes us think of pirates, and de Rais was way more interesting than that. The very short version is that de Rais was a Marshal of France during the 100-Years War with England, and commanded the troops that Joan of Arc inspired at the battle of Orleans. Later he filled his time (and emptied his wallet) producing mass-spectacle theatrical productions. The reason he’s been left out of the history books, however, is that he was eventually accused of, and admitted to, committing horrific ritualistic murders of hundreds of children. Yeah, this isn’t a show for kids. But did he REALLY commit those crimes? Modern historians are starting to cast doubt on his guilt. Politics were involved, and there is a strong possibility the entire serial-killer charge was a frame-up by the authorities, and de Rais, seeing the guilty-verdict writing-on-the-wall, merely admitted to the charges to avoid inquisitional torture. Or, did he commit the crimes in a harsher, crueler time, with the best of intentions (in 15th-century terms)…or was he mis-lead by bad companions…or was he charged for crimes committed by his subordinates…or…or…or…. And that is the Evil Cheez Production in a nutshell–does de Rais deserve the hated “Bluebeard” label?
The original script, by Wayne Miller, nicely lays out all the options, and keeps the action moving and entertaining. He even did a credible job of finding the humor so necessary to keep the audience from getting pounded too hard by the macabre. The plotline involves a pseudo re-enactment of de Rais’ original trial for the murders, with the only attorney being a modern-day historian digging for the facts, and the audience serving as the jury. The play wisely does not definitively decide “the truth”, leaving that up to the audience to ponder on their way home. One weakness in the script, however, is that it’s not clear that de Rais even knows what the truth is, or at least has a consistent opinion. de Rais at times serves as his own defense attorney, directly addressing the audience, as well as interacting with the other characters, both at the trial, and during their vignettes. It is, of course, necessary for several versions of the truth to be presented, and that is well provided by all the supporting characters. If the playwright’s goal was to use de Rais to help present the other views, by acting in the other characters’ vignettes, then a clearer distinction needs to be drawn between “de Rais, the roleplayer” and “de Rais, the person on trial and defense attorney”. The former can change views and opinions all day while playing the different roles, but the latter really can’t, or it gets very confusing for the audience. We may not end up agreeing with him, but we should know what de Rais actually thinks happened. That said, the script is impressive indeed, and was as fascinating to read as it was to watch performed. This reviewer is looking forward to watching Miller’s playwrighting library eventually get noticed by publishing houses and producers elsewhere.
In his role as director, Miller is a bit limited by the setting in the front rooms of the Lowry House. There is very little blocking possible, given the extreme sight line constraints. He does, however, keep the show moving along, and keep it visually interesting enough to allow the audience to stay focused on the dialogue, the heart of the performance.
The audience is in good hands with Jeremy Woods playing the title character. With the intimate setting, the role requires someone with complete comfort and assurance on stage, who can stand three feet from the audience and deliver those frightening lines with a smile, and still have us love him for it. Woods exudes stage presence, and pulls the audience in before he’s even said his first line. Occasionally, an actor of his experience can get a little too comfortable onstage in a choice, meaty role like this, and start to indulge himself, wallowing in the fun actor moments, rather than doing what is best for the show itself. Unfortunately Woods does fall into this trap from time to time in this production, especially in his opening and closing monologues. That said, he turns in a powerful performance, as we’ve come to expect from him.
Tanja Lewis Miller, as the “Professor”, is the only other real constant onstage with de Rais, and she turns in what may be the perfect performance of that role. She is sympathetic, cajoling, accusatory, and anything else the role calls for in the moment, as she takes turns being the de facto prosecuting attorney, and also the instructor and historian for the benefit of the audience. There isn’t a lot of opportunities in this role for Miller to “chew the scenery”, like Woods and some of the others get to do, but she is the constant, controlling presence on the stage that keeps the action moving forward, and helps to control the mood of the play.
Most of the rest of the actors in this production have only a few minutes onstage, as they cycle through as various participants in the trial, sometimes playing more than one role. Sonia Anders, as both “Joan of Arc” and de Rais’ wife “Catherine”, is a stand-out. Her job in both roles is outstanding, and the change in costumes and makeup makes her unrecognizable as the same person. Fred Tamm-Daniels does a very nice job with the role of the priest “Blanchet”. His French accent is very well done, though it throws a spotlight onto the fact that none of the rest of the supposedly French characters have an accent. Michael Bradley has far too short a time on stage, but is memorable none-the-less as “Le Ferron” the other religious man at the trial. Marcie Davis, as the “Mother” from the village; Amber Dickey, as the mysterious “Witch”; and Greg Branham, as de Rais’ grandfather, “Jean de Craon”, all turn in powerful compelling performances in their short scenes, doing a great job establishing their versions of the story. Todd Hess, as “Prelati”, the occult practitioner, comes across a bit too much like a stereotypical Count Dracula, but it does serve the purpose of establishing the most willfully evil character in the courtroom. Sue Hassett, Mark Marek, and Tara Ferguson, as the three judges at the trial, do a nice job of playing the stern authority figures, though it is quite obvious they are reading their lines up there on the judges’ stand. Thor Smith and Jonathan Bain, both playing dual roles, admirably do justice to both sets of roles in their two partnered scenes. Their turn as the sinister de Rais henchmen, “Rene” and “Charles”, is truly troubling for the audience, exactly what this play needs. Young Jasper Ferguson, as “Boy”, rounds out the cast, and also turns in a fine performance. It is a joy watching Jasper’s skills improve from show to show.
Performing a play in the front two rooms of the Lowry House, necessarily limits the technical possibilities. Todd Hess and Heather Huber are responsible for the music used at pre- and post-show, and at the intermission, and it is especially well-selected, setting and maintaining the mood admirably. The costumes, by Tara Ferguson, are simple but effective. The use of whites, blacks and grays for all the base colors, with a single simple addition for each character, was an intelligent design choice. It’s possible this was mere expediency, but if was intended as a metaphorical statement about the range of black-and-white-and grey moral choices involved in the subject matter, then kudos indeed.
Overall, this is a compelling performance. Don’t bring the kids, but do go. It’s not often one gets a chance to see a world premiere of a play, and this one is absolutely worth it. Performances continue Friday-thru-Sunday for the next two weekends, until 17 April. Ticket information and showtimes can be found here.