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John Malkovich, an orchestra, and two lovely sopranos (Sophie Klubmann and Claire Meghnagi) whisked into town, gave two presentations of The Infernal Comedy: Confessions of a Serial Killer and left. This strange performance piece – part one-man show, part Baroque concert – has been touring intermittently since 2008, playing one- or two-night stands, mostly in Europe. The ArtsEmerson engagement was Infernal Comedy’s U.S. premiere of the fully staged version.

As the show begins the orchestra is onstage, the conductor Martin Haselböck enters and an overture is played. John Malkovich walks on dressed in a white suit, black polka-dotted shirt, and white shoes. He wears sun glasses and carries a clipboard. At Boston’s Majestic Theatre, the audience responded to his celebrity and charisma with great applause. He was, after all, the reason that most were there.

The work’s conceit is that the Austrian rapist-killer Jack Unterweger (played with creepy delight by Malkovich) has returned from the dead to promote his autobiography “Confessions of a Serial Killer” via a book tour. Why he needs an orchestra and two sopranos to do this is the conundrum of the evening. Only the program offers a clue. The eight scenes and eight arias are given chapter titles. Malkovich recounts a chapter, a soprano sings.

From time to time, Malkovich interacts with the women, reenacting moments of the psychopath’s life, as related by the book. He kneels to hug his mother while caressing her sexually with one hand; toys with both women, treating them as objects; shoves one to the ground and attempts to strangle her with her bra. Despite the gruesome aspect of these scenes, Malkovich charms rather than disquiets the audience. On the one hand this acting strategy works, given that we know that Unterweger was a successful seducer. However, his parodic performance – Malkovich playing Malkovich; Malkovich as stand-

up comic; Malkovich as Arnold Schwarzenegger – belittles the suffering of rape and murder victims. The sopranos’ songs about the pain of women in love reinforce the image of women and vulnerability.

Both women sang beautifully and the music was a pleasure to listen to. The supertitles, however, were mistranslated, filled with neologisms, and just plain confusing. Was this a mistake or a joke at the audience’s expense?

The work never coalesces. It is odd to watch. The orchestra takes up most of the stage, limiting blocking possibilities. Out of necessity, the setting is minimal, a desk and chair downstage center. When not part of the scene, Malkovich rolls the chair to the side of the stage where he flirts with female musicians or plays with a piece of rope, much as he toyed with the women. He remains the focus of attention, even as the sopranos perform.

Writer-director Michael Sturminger created the piece for and with John Malkovich. As the only “actor” on stage, Malkovich has freedom to improvise which he takes advantage of, interacting with the audience.

What is this production attempting to say? Is it a study of misogyny? Of psychopathy? Is it telling us something about celebrity – both Unterweger’s and Malkovich’s? Or is Malkovich experimenting with a new form? Evidently, Sturminger, Malkovich and conductor Haselböck consider it a success, since they are developing another opera project, The Giacomo Variations.

The Infernal Comedy

Confessions of a Serial Killer

Written and Directed by Michael Sturminger

Conductor/Musical Concept – Martin Haselböck

Jack Unterweger – John Malkovich

Soprano I – Sophie Klubmann

Soprano II – Claire Meghnagi

Costume Design by Birgit Hutter

Assistant Director – Christiane Lutz

Assistant Designer – Nina Ball

Musica Angelica Baroque Orchestra Los Angeles

Based on an idea by Birgit Hutter and Martin Haselböck

Presented by ArtsEmerson at the Cutler Majestic Theatre, Boston, MA