Review: The Servant Girl Annihilator by Weird City Theatre
by Michael Meigs
For Halloween and for the following weekend your friends at the Weird City Theatre Company take you on a ghost tour. In the program they express special thanks to Monica Ballard and the Austin Ghost Tours for help with research on the late night attacks and rapes of 1884-1885 recalled in the piece.
The title is taken from a comment in a letter written by the 23-year-old William Sydney Porter -- O. Henry -- who had recently relocated from the Northeast to Texas for health reasons: "Town is fearfully dull, except for the frequent raids of the Servant Girl Annihilators, who make things lively during the dead hours of the night."
Weird City shows you a murky movie to set the atmosphere and then shepherds your limited group through a series of experiences. Not a tour of the sites of the attacks, but, rather, a series of encounters with the ghosts of the victims and of the spectre of one very worried marshal. Your guide is the very contained Sarah Griffin-Covey, who conducts you to the western entrance to backstage and moves your group from one to another of the stations established on the stage itself. White lines on the floor mark the "no-go" areas, so participants shift about in a sort of Brownian motion in order to find their vantage points. Lighting is minimal but carefully coordinated and directed, both for atmosphere and for visibility.
You meet, in turn, the African American serving girl Mollie Smith (TerriLynne Henderson), whose skull was pierced before she was raped; her common-law husband Walter Spencer (Leroy Beck), frightfully cut up and even more frightfully interrogated by lawmen invisible to us; Marshal H. Grooms Lee (Michael Covey), who has a lengthy telephone conversation about the frustrations of the case and the bad news that "a couple of men from Houston" are coming up to replace him in the investigation; and Eula Phillips (Patti A. Neff-Tiven), the final victim on Christmas Eve, 1885, who obsessively re-enacts her murder, complete with grisly special effects. We emerge from these stations of horror to take our places in the theatre for a brief wrap-up in which our guide suggests that the unknown attacker may have subsequently relocated to London, where Jack the Ripper committed eleven murders between 1888 and 1891. She slips away and the lights come up, leaving us disturbed and suspended. The actors do not appear. Artistic director John Carroll,seen earlier that evening as house manager, greets audience members at the lobby as they, too, slip away from those unpleasant happenings.
Servant Girl Annihilator evokes grim horror and victimization, and as a technique, the tour on the stage is halfway between conventional theatre and spook house. Griffin-Covey as the guide has a ghostly serenity of her own, whether instructing the audience, abruptly channeling the violence of interrogators or reassuring the long-dead Eula Phillips who shivers, trapped in the endless loop of her own murder. Text and action establish vividly those unsolved acts of violence.
I was initially skeptical of the marshal's trope with the telephone, considering that the instrument had been invented just ten years earlier, but an article on the development of the telephone published by the Texas State Historical Association confirms that Austin's local exchange was established in 1881.
Servant Girl Annihilator runs barely an hour and concludes with the soft swish of many loose ends. Its voyeuristic content strongly overrides the narrative content. We understand the horror, but we do not see or hear anything that would suggest the comfort of closure. There was room enough in this script and time to create the faceless murderer, had WCTC decided to do so, and the guide's parting mention of "a cook who left Austin for England" suggests a place for one. Carroll himself could have written and performed that role, giving these grim events a logic, if not an explanation.
The WCTC repeats their Halloweeness this coming weekend at the Dougherty Arts Center, Thursday through Saturday at 8 p.m. If you feel you were shortchanged on murder and horror this year, you can top up your tank nicely with them.
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