John Malkovich is performing in Chicago this weekend for the first time in five years. But the formidable and distinctive actor is not appearing at Steppenwolf Theatre, where of course he remains an ensemble member, but at Symphony Center in downtown Chicago. Perhaps unsurprisingly, Malkovich is playing a creepy serial killer.
The killer in question is the Austrian murderer Jack Unterweger, whose story is especially unusual. Unterweger, who was born in 1950, spent the first part of his life murdering prostitutes in numerous countries, famously strangling a German woman named Margaret Schafer with her own bra.
But despite 16 convictions and a sentence of life in prison, Unterweger was somehow able to convince various Austrian academics and progressives that he had reformed himself in jail, where he took many writing courses. There was a campaign by those deluded intellectuals, which succeeded in gaining his release. Unterweger, by then a celebrity and the media's poster child for the value of rehabilitation in the justice system, became a journalist who took international assignments.
Alas, he also remained a killer — murdering women in Los Angeles while simultaneously writing about their lives and deaths in the sex industry for an Austrian magazine. He was, in fact, reporting on his own crimes.
"Everything that Unterweger says to the audience is a lie," Malkovich said in a telephone interview this week.
After his supposed rehabilitation was revealed as a great con, Unterweger went on the lam. He eventually was recaptured, and his story came to an end when he killed himself in an Austrian prison in 1994.
If that sounds unusual enough, the event, titled "The Infernal Comedy: Confessions of a Serial Killer," at Symphony Center is a combination of Malkovich playing Unterweger, two sopranos (Laura Aikin and Kirsten Blaise) evoking the women in his life, and various arias by the likes of Antonio Vivaldi and Ludwig van Beethoven. The music is played by the Los Angeles-based Musica Angelica Baroque Orchestra, led by Martin Haselbock. The whole thing was written and directed by Michael Sturminger. It is, in essence, a piece that attempts to combine theater, opera and the experience of a classical concert.
"Obviously it's kind of a hybrid," Malkovich said. "But it's incredibly well integrated and the singers are terrific actresses."
Malkovich said that he'd initially planned to direct the work, but one thing led to another, and he ended up its star. He has been touring the piece (orchestras have varied) around the world on a light schedule pretty much since 2009, when the premiere took place in Vienna. The tone, he said, is light.
"It re-creates the experience that the Austrian public had of him," Malkovich said. "Actually, he was very well liked. Some of the women he was involved with still believe he was innocent, and many of them did not care. Whenever I have been in the places where he used to hang out, waiters and such have come up to me and told me that he was very nice."
Malkovich said that the piece has persisted in its trajectory despite some "misunderstandings."
"People look to the text for some fantastic insights into why Unterweger did what he did," the actor said. "Actually, that's what the music does. The music is both the voice of the victims and everything that Unterweger can't or won't say."
And what does Malkovich have to say about Steppenwolf? Any plans to come back and act? The actor spoke highly of artistic director Martha Lavey (such admiration is virtually universal among all the big Steppenwolf names) and said he still "reads stuff" and "considers stuff."
"But to come and act in a play," he said, "then you really have to be in love with that play. And the last one I did, I didn't love."
That would be "Lost Land," the play by Stephen Jeffreys set in a castle in Northern Hungary. Malkovich appeared in that rather inert drama, which was not well received, widespread admiration for Malkovich notwithstanding, in 2005, following a nine-year absence from the Steppenwolf stage. These days, the actor divides his time among Paris, Cambridge, Mass., and his touring schedule.
He said he hopes to take in Austin Pendleton's Steppenwolf production of Harold Pinter's "The Birthday Party," which is opening this weekend.
"It all comes down to what you want to do at a given point in time," Malkovich said. "But I am sure that, in time, I will be back."
"The Infernal Comedy: Confessions of a Serial Killer" is 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday at Symphony Center, 220 S. Michigan Ave.; $35-$125 at 312-294-3000 or cso.org
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