(Buntport Theater in Denver, Colorado) “Every man is born as many men, and dies as a single one,” said Martin Heidegger. The Catamounts' production of Emily Schwartz's Joseph-Jefferson-Award-winning tragicomedy, The Three Faces of Dr. Crippen, takes this idea to heart and presents the famous murder case in an unusual way.
Hawley Harvey Crippen, homeopathic physician, is portrayed by three different actors at the same time. “Public Crippen” — the decent and proper face which the good doctor shows to the world — is played by Jason Maxwell, who bears a striking resemblance to the real Dr. Crippen in spectacles and a handlebar mustache. “Private Crippen” — the naïve romantic who fell madly in love with his secretary — is played by Michael Bouchard, whose boyish face captures both innocent passion and helpless anxiety. “Fantasy Crippen” — the rakish dreamer who hatched the diabolical murder plot — is played by Jeremy Make, a tall and boisterous charmer.
The interplay between the three men is intricate and intellectually thrilling. The other characters in the play can only see one at a time, depending on the situation. In a public setting, Public Crippen steps forward to speak in his uncompromising fashion, while the other two hover around him giving (often unsolicited) advice. When the doctor is alone with his wife or his mistress, Private Crippen takes over, and the character becomes softer and more humane. Fantasy Crippen only really hijacks the action once or twice, usually to woo his mistress with a dance or a lecherous embrace; however, he's always there pushing the other two to do dangerous and ill-considered things.
Crippen's secretary and mistress, Ethel le Neve, is played by the bewitching Sonia Justl, who presents her as a conniving accomplice to the doctor's crimes (some doubt is cast on her role when it is revealed that Fantasy Crippen may have been embellishing events). His wife is played by Meridith C. Grundei as a self-serving harpy only interested in Crippen's money and social standing. In many ways, the two women embody two sides of the female archetype — the lover and the user: as neither of them is particularly virtuous or noble, they may as well be two faces of the same character, just as Crippen's personalities are. The only thing that separates them is the metaphysical fact that, at one time, they were actual living people.
Schwartz's writing is very smart, playing with the more shadowy regions of identity. Much is made of Cora Crippen's decision to adopt the stage name “Belle Elmore” in order to become someone more vivacious and adored. “Cora” wasn't even her real name, for she was born Kunigunde Mackamotski. She is so obsessed with becoming someone else that she even forces Dr. Crippen to change his name from “Hawley Harvey” to “Peter” because it's more socially acceptable. With such muddy conceptions of self floating around, is it any wonder that Crippen is constantly fighting an inner war?
Lest this all begins to sound like heavy drama, it should be stressed that the play presents itself as a farcical comedy. The fourth wall is smashed at the very beginning, with actors talking directly to the audience and debating what sort of story they want to tell. They lead the crowd in various traditional songs while the last stragglers are being seated — an excellent gimmick which engages the viewer from the start. Much of the action is peppered with verbal irony and physical comedy, as well as clever songs that give the whole affair a vaudeville atmosphere.
What's remarkable, then, is how emotionally powerful the few serious scenes manage to be. The actual murder is haunting and terrifying in its build-up and execution (pardon the phrase). We never lose the knowledge that this was a real man who killed a real woman in cold blood. The love story is also compelling; as with the real-life Dr. Crippen, our Dr. Crippen is deeply and genuinely in love with Ethel, and he shows it at every opportunity. It can't be said that she made him a better man, but the fact that he swore to her innocence and asked only for a photo of her to be buried with him has to count for something. The final scenes in which Crippen meets with her before his execution are all the more touching for their existential futility.
The cast and casting are both excellent. The unsung hero of the play is Kevin Packard, who not only plays all the music himself on guitar, banjo, accordion, and piano, but also plays multiple characters, including the captain of the ship on which Crippen and Ethel try to flee. Several of the best laughs come from Packard's musical cues, and the creepy and haunting murder theme finds him playing the piano with his left hand and the banjo with his right. His effortless mastery of these instruments is highly impressive.
The Catamounts troupe began in Chicago and only recently moved to Denver/Boulder. They have been garnering rave reviews, as well as accolades for their work with school kids. It's very exciting to have such a talented and committed group of performers working in Colorado, and their production of The Three Faces of Dr. Crippen is nothing short of stellar.
'The Three Faces of Dr. Crippen' runs through February 18, 2012 at The Buntport Theater, with performances on Thursday, Friday, and Saturday at 8:00 p.m. Admission is $18 for adults, $14 for seniors and students. You can purchase tickets at the box office, by mail, or online.