Baltimore Rock Opera Society reaches epic new heights with Murdercastle

Barbara Geary is teaching Derek Brown how to slice a throat. About two weeks before the May 10 opening of the new Baltimore Rock Opera Society production, Murdercastle, the cast and crew occupy the Autograph Playhouse on 25th Street, rehearsing and getting the space ready.

Onstage, male lead Brown watches director Geary and tries it out, performing the action in a quick, slightly exaggerated fashion. She asks him to slow down and be more patient with it. You get the sense she's trying to convey to him that his character's act isn't impulsive. This is a man who knows what he's doing. "We're not going to have a big blood spurt," Geary tells him. "It's going to be more gestural."

Murdercastle writer Jared Margulies watches from the second row, and the entire theater thrums with activity. A giant skull is suspended above the stage; it's only temporarily held aloft, as the crew still has to install the large metal crane the set requires. Set builders and other stagehands work on various parts of the stage, securing steps that run from the first to the second floor, installing doorways, false walls, and fixtures. A group of shadow puppeteers observes the scene-blocking from the theater seats, figuring out cues for when their puppets will take up the body-carrying action and for how long. A pair of electricians climbs up and down a towering ladder, hanging PA speakers from the ceiling.

Brown tries again and he takes his time about it. Drawing the blade across a woman's throat for his character isn't an impulsive act. It's personal. It serves a purpose. At least, that's what it looks like as Brown does it now. He's tender, like he's putting a beloved daughter to bed. And the effect-even absent a fully dressed stage, in street clothes, with the house lights on, the dull noise of stage work going on-is chilling.

Don't let the title fool you. Murdercastle, although a portmanteau of Wagnerian grandiosity like Grundelhammer and Valhella, isn't the usual BROS production. "Murder Castle" was the name given to the hotel that pharmacist H.H. Holmes had built in Chicago right before the 1893 World's Fair. It had secret passageways, hidden rooms, and a kiln big enough to fit a human body. It was the sort of building perfect for killing people-which is exactly what Holmes did. He copped to 27 murders total, although the human remains found in his hotel had police estimating it was more than 100.

More than a century later, Holmes has earned a dubious distinction as America's first serial killer. "He's a terrible human being," Margulies says of Holmes during a later interview. "And I didn't want to glamorize that. I didn't want [Murdercastle] to be the next Sweeney Todd, where the murders [become] mundane. They're very artful but it's also very flippant and aesthetic killing. You don't feel it-the first one, maybe. And I really didn't want that."

Call it sincere, call it serious, Murdercastle is the production where the BROS gets ambitious. It's a huge production, the first time the group is working with a director from outside the company, Geary, who brings with her 35 years of theater experience creating spectacles that aim higher than achieving a fist-pumping Awesome! reaction. "Jared and I sat down when we first started talking about doing [Murdercastle] and we said we wanted to leave the audience uncomfortable," Geary says. "We want to leave the audience stunned and thinking and talking at the end. We want to leave the audience shocked."

Margulies is already there. A slight, quietly intense man currently pursuing a Ph.D. in geography and environmental systems at UMBC, Margulies was one of BROS' five founding members, attending Goucher College with Eli Breitburg-Smith, Aran Keating, and Dylan Koehler. (They met co-founder John Decampos, who approached Margulies with the idea for Murdercastle, through the local music community). Standing outside the Bell Foundry, which became BROS' first headquarters earlier this year, he runs through all the ways Murdercastle and everything the company is currently going through is new territory. Having a home base is necessary, but for the first time the company has a monthly overhead. And the production itself is more ambitious by an order of magnitude: a 13-member band doing power metal with horn and string sections; a preproduction process that workshopped the script for nearly two years; a coordinated delegation of production duties and deadlines; and a cast of 40, not including kids, shadow puppets, aerialists, midway performers, and assorted livestock.

Yes, live animals. Listed among the cast in the script is an italicized note: a small flock of chickens, pygmy goats, a horse, etc. are suggested-in fact, pygmy goats may be required. "I'm terrified," Margulies says sheepishly, staring off into space. It's a deadpan, self-deprecating joke-earlier, he and Geary were going over costumes during the dress parade and he sighed to nobody in particular, "Why are there so many people in this play? . . . Oh yeah, it's all my fault"-but it's one of the ways he's dealing with the company venturing outside its wheelhouse, which is precisely why Geary was brought on board.

"It was too big [to direct in house]," he says. "We needed to create these really intense and beautiful moments with actors. And we looked around at ourselves and said, 'You know, maybe it's time to try working with someone new.'"

A journeyman director, performer, and educator, Geary had first heard about Baltimore's performance community through burlesque performer Trixie Little and moved here about a year and a half ago. She saw Valhella and conducted a movement workshop with the BROS ensemble and she jumped at the chance to work with the group. "It's basically community theater in the sense that everybody's a volunteer and everybody does it for the love of it," Geary says of BROS. "But my God, what they accomplish with that love. So that was really attractive to me, to work in that context, what it would be like to be in the middle of that maelstrom of swirling energy."

A graduate of the Dell'Arte International School of Physical Theater in Blue Lake, Calif., she's spent most of her career working in avant-garde-leaning theater. Directing a metal musical is new ground for her, but the intense effect the company wants, that she knows. Her entryway is the subject matter. "It's the story of a serial killer, and we have this strange fascination with serial killers," Geary says. "We romanticize violence, and we thought it would be a great challenge to take the audience on a journey, let them see [Holmes'] charm and let them see his awesome rockiness and, what I'm hoping, at the end we see the real consequence of the violence-not in a blood-and-guts way but in a psychological way."

For a company better known for Vikings and awesome LOLs, addressing the psychological turmoil of taking human life in its epic vocabulary is a huge gamble. But the payoff could be utterly sublime. "I do not know how people will react to this show," Margulies says. "I hope people really enjoy it. It might be the case that we are incredibly pleased with the product that we put out, and there might be people who just don't like it because of the material. And that would be OK. I think we knew that going in. It is dark and obviously that's a huge challenge for us. Can we do serious material? At the same time, if we're not growing, then what's the point?"

Murdercastle plays at the Autograph Playhouse may 10 through May 25.


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