Dead Man Talking
TELLTALE TOOTHPRINTS IN a dead girl's ass: that was Ted Bundy's downfall. Sounds like a movie, no? Much of the serial killer's story seems made-up, like the English-class masterpiece by some troubled high school kid (B-. Please come see me.) Of course, this is the reaction of the average mind, which doesn't like to fathom the truth when the truth reveals a mystery of utter misery, emptiness, and, for lack of a better word, evil.
stark.florida doesn't deal much with the dirty particulars of Bundy's murderous career, but for anyone who doesn't know or remember, some context is helpful. Ted Bundy liked to torture animals as a kid. When he was 15, a 9-year-old girl on his block disappeared, never to be found. He grew into a handsome man; one cop described him as "an articulate, nice guy." He used fake casts and splints in his dramas; for example, he'd put on an arm sling and ask a woman to help him load up his boat. She would be unusually pretty, with long hair parted down the center; she'd be helpful and kind to strangers. He would hit her over the head with something blunt, then have his idea of fun with her body. Though police have confirmed him as the killer of 30 women and girls, they suspect his victims number into three figures.
The obvious questions here, Why and How, don't much interest policeman/playwright K.L. Varnold. Instead, his first play asks us to examine ourselves: How should we deal with human evil? stark.florida is a fictional account of what might have happened during Bundy's last hours, an invented conversation between Bundy (Matt Sciple) and the cop who arrested him 11 years earlier, Howard (Shawn Hoffman)--a composite of various policemen Varnold met here and in Florida. The staging is equally spare, just a table, two chairs, and a pot of coffee. It's all we need.
History tells us that the night before Ted Bundy was electrocuted in 1989, Floridians put on a party. Sonny's BBQ in Tallahassee served fried foods at half price. Bumper stickers, T-shirts, and signs read "Burn, Bundy, Burn" (when he died, firecrackers and sparklers were lit outside the prison). And as Howard tells Bundy in the play, the anti-death sentence protesters were silent that night. Sciple's Bundy plays for time at the end, offering to reveal where he'd hidden bodies, and apparently volunteering as a subject for brain study. But this execution, of course, was not mere "justice." It was vengeance.
Howard is disgusted and burned out with the whole business, and Hoffman looks the part, down to his puffy, red eyes. In an opening monologue directed at the audience, he's grim, informing us he woke up at 5 a.m. to drive down and grant Bundy's request for a final talk. (It's his son's birthday, but since his wife left him, he doesn't see him much.) He claims he's come down to try to get Bundy to admit to killing 12-year-old Kim Leach, but it seems there's something else going on.
Enter Bundy. Now remember, Bundy is an operator; remember too that he has only a few hours to live. But Sciple--who plays the character as oddly effeminate, hardly the studly charmer we've heard so much about--steps lightly through the script, and we feel none of the weight of the moment. Hoffman sometimes overdoes the gritty scowling, but at least we can see what he's trying for. With Sciple's Bundy, it seemed I was watching someone who'd memorized the lines and blocking perfectly, but neglected to find out where his own soul fit in the play. During a post-show Q&A, Sciple said this was one of his easier roles--that because there was nothing at Bundy's center but a black hole, he found himself excused from connecting the disparate parts of Bundy's psyche. But this is precisely the task one must take on in playing a crazy person--even if the intention is to portray psychic fracture.
Finding this link between sanity and evil is also one of the script's central goals--not just the old-style villain-to-hero claptrap of "We're the same, you and I" (which Bundy uses here). These two men are not the same. The connection between Howard and Ted, between all of us and Ted, is something deeper than simple vengeance. Maybe Howard gives us a clue in his reaction to the execution-day partiers: He says that we've got to kill Ted Bundy with dignity. Not for his sake, but our own. CP
starke.florida runs Thursday-Sunday Through November 17 at the Cedar-Riverside People's Center, 2000 S. Fifth St., Mpls.; call 870-6583 for more info.
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