The particular talents of actor John Malkovich bear a startling resemblance to Austria’s Jack Unterweger, the serial murderer Malkovich plays in a one night tour de force .
Writer/director Michael Sturminger’s The Infernal Comedy, combines theater, opera, and the music of Beethoven, Haydn and Mozart, with the Emmy award-winning actor’s charismatic, mercurial, clever and “bad, bad guy” capabilities.
“Without saying something as mundane as it being therapeutic, it’s kind of good exercise — it’s like going to an emotional gym,” he said in an interview with The Times UK.
The evil he embodies is the subject matter of Sturminger’s collaboration with organist and conductor Martin Haselböck.
Featuring Haselböck’s Musica Angelica Baroque Orchestra and sopranos Luise Fribo and Martene Grimson, the multidisciplinary production follows the true story of Unterweger, who achieved notoriety after publishing his autobiography from prison. Released and held up as a poster child for criminal rehabilitation, the celebrity killer went on to murder several women before ending his own life in 1994.
“This is someone who never should have been out in public. Ever — for any reason. But in our modern system, he is,” Malkovich stated.
The Infernal Comedy receives a different reaction in every city, according to Malkovich. Some in the audience object to it as a glorification; others recognize the fine line separating the role-playing we all do to fit into society from the veiled madness of a sociopath.
Accordingly, Sturminger allowed Malkovich certain freedoms in his portrayal. Quoting from the production’s website, he wrote, “Although staying perfectly faithful to direction, text and his partners on the stage, John, in every single rehearsal or performance, searched for new possibilities to surprise himself and us. Watching John Malkovich perform, we immediately connected to the ideal for which dramatic art is made: the presence of the moment.”
Unfortunately for the real life victims of Unterweger, their moment of choice vanished in gruesome, twisted violence. Reviews of the production from around the world point to the soprano’s unforgettable, haunting arias, suggesting both a lament and the nightmarish cries of the dead.
“I’d say though that a great challenge in The Infernal Comedy has been the extent to which the music informs everything alongside the text, and that it is vital to stay ahead of the public,” Malkovich commented. “In a movie, that’s the director’s job but in a piece like this it’s your job to think ahead, to keep an idea of the pacing and to be aware of what the orchestra and the singers can deal with from you as the actor.”
The actor compares live theater to surfing, with the wave cresting where audience and material intersect. What invigorates him are roles with enough muscle and vulnerability to stretch his potential and test his investigative skills.
Playing the psychopathic killer night after night since the show’s premiere in 2009 could color a performer, but Malkovich balances the darkness and sorrow with both art and practicality.
“...when you listen to a beautiful piece of music or read a fantastic book or go to the Rijksmuseum to see Rembrandt’s 'The Night Watch,' I think it is at least comforting to know what people are capable of doing artistically,” he has said.
Beyond uplifting examples of creativity, the actor follows a simple practice: “For me, the principal rule of my life is that I’m never around anyone who doesn’t want to be around me.”