Encore Michigan

Penny Seats’ cutting version of ‘Ripper’

Review October 16, 2021 David Kiley

ANN ARBOR, Mich. – ‘Tis the season for dark and frightening plays. And The Penny Seats’ new presentation of Jacob Marx Price’s Ripper is dark and innovative.

The play focuses on the familiar story of Jack The Ripper, a serial killer in and around the Whitechapel district of London in 1888. In both the criminal case files and contemporary journalistic accounts, the killer was called the Whitechapel Murderer and Leather Apron.

Marx Rice has borrowed the story to weave his story of a reporter who meets up with “Jack” in the course of writing about The Whitechapel murders. The reporter, Gillian Spender (Jasmine Rose), is writing for a newspaper under a nom de Plume because papers of the time in London were not employing women reporters. Gillian has the job because her brother (Dan Johnson) is the editor.

The murderer confronts Spender, cannily realizing that he can manipulate her into telling his story without giving him up to the police – she needs the murderer to advance in journalism, and does exact an agreement with the brother that if her stuff sets new circulation records, she can write under her own name.

Marx Rice has likely drawn here on the police reports and accounts of the time whereby experts identified two letters, supposedly written by the murderer, credited to one of two reporters of the time. One reporter who is suspected of writing the letters is Tom Bullen of The Central News Agency, a news outlet known at the time for fabricating stories to drive circulation.

The playwright seizes on this theory of a reporter using this serial killer to advance her career despite having the opportunity to end his rampage either by informing the police or killing him herself, to create the scenario that the mass murderer is actually not the most deplorable person in the story or on stage.

It is a neat twist on a familiar story.

Mx. Rose’s Jillian and Will Myers as Ripper are at the center of the narrative. Rose reflects well the attitude of the smart independent woman of the 1880s who is frustrated by gender suppression that required her to write under a man’s name. The character was certainly not the only woman of the time to suffer this way. Myers plays Jack as a lascivious, creepy manipulator –feeling superior to everyone, especially the bumbling police who cannot catch him.

Directed by Josie Eli Herman, the quality of the actors’ English and cockney accents comes through, even as voices are altered by Johnson Brittany Batell, Julia Garlotte and Tim Pollack to play different characters. The set, designed by Jennifer Maiseloff, works extremely well in the Stone Cottage performance space, to work for the inside of the newspaper offices, as well as every other setting in the story without having to move any walls. TyChi’s light design evokes 1888 gas-lit London. Costumes by Ben Despard seem dead accurate for the time.

Why should one killing spree stay in our minds more than 130 years after the fact when so many other do not? Good copywriting for one thing. The killer we think of Jack probably only killed five of the 12 murders that occurred at the time, but journalists of the time trying to weave a story that would sell papers gave him the name “The Ripper” because of his pattern of mutilating his victims after killing them with a single stab wound.

And here we are again, all these decades later where “fake news,” stories conjured by “media” outlets that spring up like dandelions in July, rule the day and spread more bullshit on the field of social media than a Caterpillar cultivator, planting the seeds of a lasting story in our minds.

The Ripper plays October 14-30 at The Stone Chalet on Washtenaw Ave. here. Seating is socially distanced and vaxx cards or clean Covid test cards must be presented for entry. Masking inside the theatre is mandatory.

Week of 11/29/2021

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