In Hinter, a murder investigation in 1922 Germany reveals all sorts of hidden horrors | Performing Arts Review | Chicago Reader

In Hinter, a murder investigation in 1922 Germany reveals all sorts of hidden horrors 

But Calamity West’s new play short-circuits when it should explode.

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click to enlarge hinter1.jpg

Gregg Gilman

O n Friday, March 31, 1922, at a remote farm outside the Bavarian town of Kaifeck, someone slaughtered six people-the Gruber family and their maid-striking each one repeatedly on the head and face with a pickax. Four days later neighbors found the bodies. They also discovered that the farm and livestock had been well tended all weekend; the killer had apparently moved in for a while before vanishing.

In Hinter, Chicago playwright Calamity West transforms this grisly unsolved murder into a theatrical centrifuge of violence: not only criminal but familial, cultural, and international. The Great War has left a hinterland full of widows, including Viktoria, the murdered farm owner; Klara, the devout farmhand; and Frieda, the stone-faced nearest neighbor. When the cosmopolitan Munich investigator arrives to investigate the case, he barely bothers to care about a handful of murdered hicks. And the further he proceeds, the more it becomes clear that Viktoria lived in domestic terror. (Historically, her father-Andreas in real life, Andres in the play-previously served a year in prison for committing incest with her, but the script makes no reference to his imprisonment.)

It's ultimately the family horror, and the efforts of an unlikely rural ally to rescue Viktoria from it, that forms the spine of West's play. In typical fashion, West writes taut dialogue full of sublimation and misdirection as well as sudden bursts of frankness, creating a menacing unpredictability that aptly suits the situation-not only the unexplained carnage, but also the possibility of supernatural goings on at the farm.

A few key plot points strain credulity. Andres "accidentally" admits to a horrific act with little provocation. Viktoria's former maid Elizabeth, who recently fled because she believed the farm was haunted, returns and stays for no reason beyond theatrical expediency. Maria, the new maid, speaks so insolently to Andres it's hard to fathom she wouldn't be discharged immediately.

Still, West has assembled potent incidents into an explosive mix, as is her wont. But the script's bifurcated structure short-circuits the whole affair. West sets act one just after the murders and act two just before, switching the focus to new characters after intermission, resetting the dramatic course, and dropping almost everything set up for payoff in the first half. In essence, she's created separate halves of different plays. And the conclusion brings little meaningful resolution.

Just as problematic, director Brad DeFabo Akin doesn't capitalize on the script's strengths. Rather than establishing a stage world of unsettling peculiarity, he's created one of stilted disjointedness. The characters relate to one another as relative strangers rather than as lifelong inhabitants of shared isolation. It's hard to discern who these people are to one other, and thus their collective stake in the tragedy never comes into focus.   v

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