In my four years at Knox, rarely have I seen a student-written work mounted in Studio Theatre (the major exception being last year’s New Plays Festival). This makes my job as a critic infinitely easier, as it allows me to put aside my qualms about the script and give greater attention to what is done with it. Every so often, however, a student director feels confident enough in a fellow student’s work to produce it in Studio, and it is within those instances (as with “The Child Killers Club”) that I must provide separate critiques for the script and its production.
With that said, sophomore Niki Acton’s “The Child Killers Club” is deeply flawed, but I was nevertheless able to enjoy senior Chloe Luetkemeyer’s interpretation. Focused on the torrid pasts of runaways Silas (Visiting Instructor Sherwood Kiraly) and Max (senior Mya Kahler), tensions heighten as secrets come out and the duo — running away from lives of pain and misery — end up suffering more than if they had stayed apart. The staging of these contentious moments is absolutely exquisite: Luetkemeyer definitely knows how to work a theatrical space. And the space itself, stripped down to its essentials of doors and a table and bed, resonated with me more than if the hotel room setting had been meticulously decorated.
In all, the production has been rendered in a very simple manner, which in my opinion is ideal to contrasting the complicated and messy emotions hurled about in the actual script. Concerning design, I absolutely enjoyed the music. The few cues orchestrated by junior John Bird continue to prove he has an encyclopedic knowledge of song that is executed with pinpoint accuracy. Similarly, my favorite moment of the production was the pre-show, in which senior Amanda Shiew sat on the bed and played guitar, soon after delivering the obligatory Studio warnings in a phone conversation with her friend. It’s corny, it’s gimmicky and I groaned all the way through it, but I nevertheless found it endearing and indicative that Luetkemeyer and her crew didn’t take themselves completely seriously despite performing a play about child killing.
Both Kiraly and Kahler gave excellent performances as Silas and Max, but I felt that their characters were not fully materialized. Max started out as a spunky and rebellious teenager, but once the characters began arguing, her personality almost completely dropped. The antagonism was still there, but she no longer sounded like a teenager. Kahler’s Max described her past trauma in surprisingly eloquent terms, but that’s all we really came to know and remember about her: that she was a victim. We receive little information about her life or personality outside her abusive family. Silas, too, suffers from that same lack of background. Though I really enjoyed Kiraly’s acting within the pauses — ruminating on the consequences of his decisions — I felt that never learned much about his home life other than that he felt guilty for letting his granddaughter die. What is his relationship with his wife like? Why did his son-in-law lash out at him at the funeral? We don’t know, because Silas isn’t a character. Silas and Max are representations of their trauma, and it’s very hard to invest in representations.
The evocation of taboos is great in getting audiences to pay attention: viewers are so shocked by the controversial material that they aren’t able to settle into the story comfortably. But when numerous taboos are implemented in a script, a playwright runs the risk of focusing more on the spectacle of the taboo than on the characters involved. When Silas and Max were arguing, repeating over and over the lurid details of their pasts, I found myself incredibly bored. I didn’t understand why Max cared so much about staying with Silas, because she’d never given any indication of liking him. And, I wondered, what did Silas like about his home life so much that allowed him to abandon this girl and head back? We don’t know, and we don’t know because the title tells us everything we need to know: Silas and Max are child killers. Others view them as only child killers, but it also feels that Acton only views them as child killers, too. And as long as that’s their strongest character trait, then I find it difficult to care about what happens to them. I enjoyed Luetkemeyer’s production well enough, I really did, but I think Acton’s script could use some serious workshopping.