America’s first ever serial killers come back to surreal life in American Misfit, Dan Dietz’s overreaching yet frequently entertaining historical dramedy with music, now playing at The Theatre @ Boston Court under Michael Michetti’s imaginative direction.


The killers in question are the Harpe Brothers, an unmatched pair of siblings whose killing spree through Tennessee, Kentucky, Illinois, and Mississippi in the post-Revolutionary years of our country’s infancy was either a misguided attempt at small-scale counterrevolution or a simple case of blood lust.

As for the music in question, it is 1950s rockabilly, performed live onstage by a sensational three-piece band and sung by the evening’s narrator, the charismatic Banks Boutté as Rockabilly Boy.

AM_A0254-copy As any Broadway buff can tell you, American Misfit is neither the first nor even the second instance of contemporary music and American history and murder forming the basis of a theatrical piece.  Stephen Sondheim wrote famously about presidential killers in Assassins, and more recently an indeed bloody Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson segued from a run at the Kirk Douglas to an off-and-on-Broadway run.

Those two shows were bona fide musicals, however, and since audience interest remains high whenever Boutté and band are rockabillying away, I can’t help wishing that Philip Owen and Dietz had gone the full-fledged musical route.  That would have given us more of Lee Martino’s sensational choreography, there being not nearly enough of the song-and-dance excitement Martino and cast promise in the show’s infectious, terrifically performed opening number.

AM_A1175-copy Dietz’ play is best at its most straightforward, since AJ Meijer as Micajah “Big” Harpe and Daniel MK Cohen as Wiley “Little” Harpe do truly compelling work, with crackerjack (make that crackerjill) support from Maya Erskine and Karen Jean Olds as backwoods gals Sue and Betsey, who history tells us became a polygamous Big’s two wives.  Cohen in particular does extraordinarily watchable, touching work as the more height-challenged of the two.

AM_A0636-copy Act One ends with a sensational, surreal scene of the Harpes and their womenfolk on a mammoth murder rampage, a sequence that gives lighting designer Elizabeth Harper, sound designer Martin Carrillo, and properties and puppet designer Heather Ho the chance to strut their stuff, leaving the stage covered with scarecrow puppet “bodies,” their zippered fronts open to reveal yard upon yard of red streamers in lieu of actual eviscerated innards.

Making her first appearance at the end of Act One is the sublimely lovely Eden Riegel (of All My Children fame) as Sally, the preacher’s daughter who went on to become Mrs. Little, and whose debates with him over issues of democracy vs. monarchy are not only compelling to listen to and watch, they have a transformative effect on her killing spree-prone hubby, thereby adding even greater depth to Cohen’s already memorable work.  (Riegel also gets to sing one of Owen and Dietz’s songs, and exquisitely so.)

The one-and-only Larry Cedar is on hand to play a humorously aristocratic George Washington as well as Sally’s hellfire-and-brimstone preacher Pa, a book-burner if there ever was one, with Sally’s dictionary a particular victim of his “We Don’t Want No Education” policy.

AM_A0120-copy An excellent P.J. Ochlan plays Moses Doss, the first Harpe Brothers victim, whose only crime was to know their real names.  Later, in American Misfit’s American Misstep, Ochlan returns to soliloquize as Robert E. Lee, J. Robert Oppenheimer, and Ronald Reagan, scenes that cross the fine line between cleverness and pretention, most notably in a bizarre dream monolog which has the “father of the atomic bomb” having hot fantasies about none other than Marilyn Monroe.

I couldn’t help thinking how much more I’d have liked American Misfit without these side trips into La La Land and with more, much more of the music and dance that make it come alive.

American Misfit is not a play to go into uninformed.  This reviewer had fortunately done a quick bit of research before the show, an online search which helped immensely in following Dietz’s frenetic narrative. A biographical insert would be of great help to those audience members who might find themselves in desperate need of an Act One synopsis at intermission.

Boston Court’s latest benefits from the multiple contributions of Omar D. Brancato, not only in charge of musical direction and arrangements but also onstage bassist alongside Eric McConnell on guitar and Rosy Rosenquist on drums, and Rockabilly Boy cover at a pair of upcoming understudy performances.

AM_A1017-Copy Nick Santiago’s outstanding scenic design, representing Rockabilly Boy and Band’s performance space, could easily fill a big proscenium stage (with a bunch of multipurpose blue streamers thrown in both for looks and for more practical uses).  Carrillo’s sound design is never more fascinating than when characters suddenly speak in voices so amped that they sound almost lip-synched.  (I’m not sure what that effect was supposed to signify, but it definitely was interesting.)  Ann Closs-Farley’s costumes, a blend of the historical and the fanciful, are quite splendid.  Kudos go also to dialect coaches Tracy Winters and Tuffet Schmelzle.  Gwenmarie White is assistant director, Aaron Henne dramaturg, Nicole Rossi production stage manager, and Julia Flores casting director.

If there’s any L.A. theater known for its “out there” productions, The Theatre @ Boston Court is it, and a number of those offerings have been among this reviewer’s Best Of The Year favorites.  (Last year’s Scenie-winning The Dinosaur Within and The Children come immediately to mind.)  Other Boston Court productions have proven too experimental or avant-garde for my tastes.  American Misfit fits smack dab in the middle.  Though I can’t confess to being a fan of its artsier side trips, while it was on the right track with the Harpe Boys and Sally and with sexy Rockabilly Boy swiveling his hips a la Elvis, I found myself quite enjoying American Misfit’s rockabilly ride.

Theatre @ Boston Court, 70 N. Mentor Ave., Pasadena.

–Steven Stanley
April 18, 2013
Photos: Ed Krieger

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