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MURDER CASTLE: The Chronicle of H.H. Holmes

5 weeks SOLD OUT! h.h.holmes murder castle hotel devil in w hite city

Note from Author/Producer Aaron Kopec:
I love fall productions.  I love fall. I love the smell of fall, the feel of fall and the strange, chilling excitement that goes along with fall and all that happens during it.

I have a fascination with two main aspects of theatre.  One is exploring the dark side of human nature and the other is creating productions that immerse the audience deep into the setting of the play.  Something that can only really be achieved at the "small level" in a venue such as The Alchemist.
I served as a lead actor and artistic designer for Jackie Benka's "RIPPER" in the fall of 2008, here at The Alchemist Theatre.  For that production we set the audience in a dark, White Chapel alley where building facades and dark corners lent a claustrophobic mood to the show.
In 2009, I re-worked the Dale Gutzmen penned script for "Dracula: The Undead" and took the helm as director.  For that production the main goal was definitely "Halloween fun."  Knowing and accepting that the vast majority of the audience was very familiar with the Dracula story, I attempted to dance around the main plot points and developed a secondary story about real-life gypsies who, through nightly re-enactments of the classic tale and human sacrifice, worship a real vampire.  In that production the audience served as "tourists" who came to witness this ceremony deep in the Transylvanian forest at the ruin site of Castle Dracula.

While beginning my research of Holmes, I realized that, like many others have been, I was mesmerized by not only what he was doing, but also what was going on in the world at that time.  I admit that going into this, my history was quite fuzzy.  It didn't occur to me that not only was Jack-The-Ripper making headlines over seas, but that electricity, phones, gasoline powered automobiles and steel-framed sky-scrapers were all being unleashed into the world.  Motion pictures were being developed, fashion began seeing colored dyes and the British Empire was still expanding.  Yet, through all this development and "modernization" of large cities, the American west was still being won.  Billy the Kid was slinging lead all over the place and Geronimo was fighting to keep Apache lands from the U.S. and Mexico.

While Holmes acted alone, I believe that those closest to him, at the very least, knew something was going on.   With all the progress and whirlwind excitement that was buzzing through Chicago, Holmes quickly learned to take advantage of both the fortunate and the desperate.  This play explores the question of how Holmes managed to get away with an unbelievable amount of evil and how he twisted those around him to continually turn a blind eye even as he began to lose all restraint.

For those of you unfamiliar with the story, you will be shocked by the shear magnitude of what this man was able to get away with.
For those of you who know the tale well, I must admit that there is really no way to cover even a fraction of the Doctor's "career" as a serial killer.
Amalgams of characters have been developed to portray the multitude of business associates, scam victims and even wives and lovers that fell prey to Holmes' wicked charm, not only in Chicago, but across much of the United States.

Combined characters and locations aside, this production is a historically accurate portrayal based on a story that is all-too-true.

Of course, being that it is still a "Halloween production," you can be certain that The Alchemist Theatre will once-again be pulling out all of the stops when it comes to "fun" and exciting sound and visual effects as well as mood and atmosphere design.

Thank you for taking an interest in this production and I hope you enjoy the colossal amount of work that everyone put into making "Murder Castle: The Chronicle of H.H.Holmes" another successful show!

-Aaron Kopec
owner/artistic director
The Alchemist Theatre


Unexpected Depth: Alchemist's MURDER CASTLE
Alchemist Theatre’s Intelligent, Provocative October Horror Show
Russ Bickerstaff

The only new theatre show of the weekend welcomes a full-weekend of sell-out audiences. Alchemist Theatre’s Murder Castle: The Chronicle of H. H. Holmes opened a five-week run last night.

All performances begin at 7:30 pm. The Alchemist website suggests that the show’s attendees show-up around 7 or 7:10 pm. An excellent idea—the play itself is Shakespearian in length, but the atmosphere in the Alchemist’s Bay View Lounge is fun atmosphere--well worth lurking around in. Music, costuming and such help to induct audiences into the 1890’s period feel of the play. There’s an opportunity to play poker with Patrick Schmitz in character as outlaw Marion Hedgepeth. Chips won over poker are good for drinks at the bar. Between this and the basement entrance to the theatre next door, Kopec and company have carved-out a full-evening’s entertainment. This is the first October show that Kopec has written. It's Erica Case's first time as director. She's something of an outsider, but she's working with a really good cast here. Her day job is in human resources. I'd asked her if there were any parallels. There are. (Not surprising.) 

One of my few beers in the past couple of months was an East Side Dark. The prescription eye drops I’ve been taking for the past couple of months (steroids and antibiotics) made my first beer in some time taste appropriately medicinal. I picked-up the room key that was my ticket to the show at the bar and walked into the basement to enter the theatre.

he basement is decked-out like a cross between a haunted house and a museum piece. Those of us who are familiar with the story of Dr. H.H. Holmes get a quick refresher course in the background of the title character, Chicago in the 1890’s and the basics of the 1893 World’s Colombian Exposition in Chicago. A small row of theatre seats site at the end of a series of text-filled placards. There’s a video projected at a screen in front of the seats that serves as a brief documentary about the Expo narrated by Schmitz.

The show itself is disturbingly provocative. As it is the third October horror show that Alchemist has done in as many years, I’d expected the show to be a competently written 19th century period psychological horror drama well executed by a really good cast.
What I didn’t expect was a strikingly deep historical allegory about the beginning of the 20th century. Yes, this is the story of a man who confessed to killing over 20 people in Chicago in the l890’s, but the real horror here is about the kind of culture that sort of behavior came out of. Nate Press, who plays the serial killer, has a remarkably dark scene in conversation with a victim before he has his way with her, but Liz Whitford (in the role of his first wife) has an equally disturbing monologue spoken to her baby that shows a kind of corruption in the hopeful innocence of passive complicity. In a city the size of Chicago, 27 people don’t get killed by a single man without people knowing about it and failing to act.
In a modern world that was born out of the 1890’s, the modern American is guilty of an endless parade of such complicities. . . .and this is really only scratching the surface of the social commentary of a remarkably inspired and insightful play.There's so much else going on here, including the compelling cultural allegory of Holmes’ interactions with an emerging, young intellectual cleverly played with admirable depth by Grace DeWolf.

Yes, Murder Castle goes on a little bit longer than it should and loses a little dramatic impact along the way, but this is a refreshingly intellectual horror show with a depth to it only found in the more sophisticated works in the genre.

H. H. Holmes haunts The Alchemist
Tom Christy
Milwaukee Performing Arts Examiner

The annual Halloween show at the Alchemist Theatre is quickly becoming a bona fide Bay View institution. This year's offering is "Murder Castle: The Chronicle of H.H. Holmes", a play based on the murderous exploits of America's first serial killer.
For those who haven't been to the Alchemist, it's a certifiable Milwaukee treasure. Co-owners Aaron Kopec and Erica Case have created a hang-out/entertainment venue attuned to the Facebook generation. Featuring a cocktail lounge with all the friendliness of a neighborhood pub plus the relaxed, conversational atmosphere of your living room, combined with the intimacy of a cozy 50-seat theater, they've innovated a new kind of theater experience where the barrier between audience and performers is non-existent. The resulting sense of community and shared participation is a revolution of the theater format. Eliminating the anonymity typical of attending any entertainment spectacle and providing immediate inclusivity is incredibly appealing to anyone who values their individuality. Judging by the ubiquitousness of the social networking phenomenon, their customer base includes just about everyone. The Alchemist is the wave of the future.

True to the ideal of drawing the audience into the work, "Murder Castle" will immerse theatergoers into the world of H. H. Holmes as soon as they set foot in the door. The lounge will be transformed into the lobby of Holmes's World's Fair Hotel. The basement replicates Holmes's macabre cellar where innumerable victims spent their last agonizing moments. Roaming actors will interact with guests while playing actual characters from Holmes's life. And all this amusement is mere prologue to the play, a re-creation of the life and times of the self-described devil himself.

Co-director Erica Case was gracious enough to take time out of her hectic opening week schedule to answer some questions about the show:

How does Murder Castle compare to the two previous Halloween shows at the Alchemist?

All of our fall shows are an unexpected, entertaining experience geared for anyone looking for an enjoyable night. You don’t have to be a regular theatergoer to have fun! We started our fall shows in 2008 with Jackie Benka’s [Jack the] "Ripper", a gothic soap opera, who-done-it over a backdrop of love-triangles and murder. Then came 2009’s "Dracula: The Undead", a unique take on a classic tale which was able to focus a great deal on special effects and visuals since everyone is very familiar with the basic storyline. Which brings us to this year’s "Murder Castle: The Chronicle of H.H. Holmes", which is a character driven piece focused on the interactions and relationships of Holmes and those around him. But in the tradition of our previous fall shows, "Murder Castle" utilizes all of the Alchemist space and begins the show experience the moment you enter the doors. This year the Lounge has been decorated to imply an 1890’s hotel lobby, or at least our version of it, with staff in costume and characters from the show milling about; so your experience begins right there when you check in for the night. From there guests will travel through the cellar and see a small representation of our very own “Murder Castle” before reaching their “rooms” to enjoy the show.

What kind of scares should we expect: people jumping out at us, lots of blood and gore? Would you say this is the unrated NC-17 version of Holmes?

"Murder Castle" is more of a creepy, make you uncomfortable type of scare – think Norman Bates with a bit of Hannibal Lecter. Not a lot of blood and gore and definitely not people jumping out at you – a bit different than Dracula but definitely scary. I would probably say it is rated R….. I don’t think the censers would give us an NC-17…. Although maybe in 1893…. :)

While Holmes hasn't reached the household name status of his contemporary Jack the Ripper, he's becoming more well-known is recent years. How does "Murder Castle" address Holmes's relevance? To what do you attribute the recent revival of interest in Holmes?

The play actually addresses this issue of name recognition head on, so I won’t give that away. I think the recent popularity of Holmes is in part due to [Erik Larson's New York Times Bestseller] The Devil in the White City, but Aaron's research seems to indicate that Holmes himself has had a somewhat roller coaster popularity – it seems to come in waves as people rediscover the story.

 America’s Answer to Jack the Ripper
Michael Ray

Serial killer, con artist, pharmacist – Dr. H.H. Holmes was many things, and his story is just the kind of drama churned out in turn-of-the-century pulp novels and modern-day thrillers. As real as Jack the Ripper and, by most accounts, far more deadly, Holmes was one of America’s first homegrown serial killers. His now infamous “Murder Castle” was torn down from its Chicago post in 1938, more than forty years after his own execution. Now it’s back.

Murder Castle: The Chronicle of H.H. Holmes at The Alchemist Theatre, 2659 S. Kinnickinnic Ave. in Bay View, offers patrons what co-director/co-owner Erica Case calls a “full facility production.” In addition to the stage show, which focuses attention on the psychological and human aspect of the Holmes story, the lounge and basement of The Alchemist will be transformed.

Perfect for audiences tired of the same five Halloween haunted houses that recycle themselves every year, Murder Castle offers an intimate and engaging sensory experience. More than that, though, the show promises to engage people simply by introducing them to such a perfect, real-life villain.

Set in the 1890s, the story follows Holmes’ prolific scams and gruesome killings, many of which took place in the three-story hotel he had built to coincide with the Chicago World’s Fair. Holmes eventually confessed to 27 murders, nine of which were confirmed. He is suspected, however, of committing up to 230.

“Most likely a lot of people checked in and never checked out,” Case said. “He was brilliant in his spectrum of crime, though it eventually caught up with him.”

Compiled from a variety of sources and written by Alchemist co-owner Aaron Kopec, Murder Castle will feature local actors, most notably Nate Press in the title role.
Murder Castle
Cara Slingerland
The Bay View Compass

Upon entering the Alchemist Theatre’s front door, patrons attending Murder Castle: H.H. Holmes are transported to the setting of a Chicago hotel lobby in 1893. Patrons check in as “guests,” absorb their surroundings, note the newsies and ruffians that not-so-quietly line the walls, then may drink or gamble alongside historical figures.

The space-and-time warp is almost necessary to put the audience into the proper frame of mind, since they haven’t entered an ordinary hotel and the crimes committed by the play’s namesake are incomprehensible. 
Known as “America’s First Serial Killer,” Dr. H.H. Holmes committed anywhere from 20 to 200 murders, numerous life insurance policy swindles, and other scams before being caught, tried, and executed. The play is based on true events.

You can’t help but like [Holmes] and hope that he doesn’t get caught,” said Aaron Kopec, the playwright and owner/creative director of the Alchemist. “And that feeling, in turn, should make you a bit uncomfortable.”

Kopec hopes to portray Holmes, played by native Milwaukeean Nate Press, as both the “villain” and “hero” of the story. Much like some of the most critically acclaimed television series of late (The Sopranos comes to mind), an obviously flawed character is presented, with judgment left to the audience. The audience, in turn, feels better able to relate to the imperfect character.

“There is always the dark and purely evil nature of someone like Holmes that is, of course, fascinating,” Kopec said. “This production, however, chooses to focus less on the what or why of the evil deeds and more on how he got away with them.”

Exploring dark themes and events serves as perfect material for a show around Halloween, according to Kopec. He also had a major role in bringing plays about Dracula and Jack the Ripper to the theater for previous fall shows—other well-known stories that lend themselves to many different versions.

This retelling of H.H. Holmes’ actions doesn’t stray far from the facts. Besides some composite characters and combined locations, Murder Castle is as historically accurate as it is intriguing.

A brilliant man, Dr. Herman Mudgett chose his alias, Holmes, after Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s famous fictional detective. The acts that contributed to Holmes’ own infamy began while still in medical school at the University of Michigan in the late 1800s, when he first began disfiguring cadavers to collect on fraudulent insurance policies.

After moving to Chicago to pursue his career in pharmaceuticals, Holmes bought land across the street from his shadily-acquired pharmacy. This was to be the site of his hotel, dubbed the “Murder Castle.” Holmes’ acts were predetermined, as he had the hotel built with trick doors, confusing hallways, and chutes that could transport bodies to an incinerator in the basement. The “Murder Castle” is no longer standing in Chicago’s Englewood neighborhood; it was razed and replaced by a U.S. Post Office.

The characters Holmes encounters in the play are also true to life, and some famous in their own right. While in jail for a petty crime, Holmes meets Marion Hedgepeth, played by Patrick Schmitz. Hedgepeth is a famous Wild West outlaw known as the “Handsome Bandit” and an important figure in the story.

A testament to his cunning, Holmes had three wives during his lifetime. His first wife, Clara Lovering, is portrayed as naïve and broken, played by Liz Whitford. Before divorcing her, Holmes also married Myrta Belknap, played by Sarah Dill. His final wife was Marjory Lotus, played by Anna Figlesthaler.

The women have a lot to consider when playing their roles: Most of Holmes’ victims were women, and most of them were blonde. And Kopec believes that “those closest to him, at the very least, knew something was going on,” as stated in a press release.

James Jonas, a Bay View native, plays Detective Frank Geyer, another character who can speak to the “how” of Holmes’ deeds. Detective Geyer is central to the unraveling of Holmes’ web of deceit and murder.

The play is directed by Erica Case and Greg Bach. Case is also a co-owner of the Alchemist and Murder Castle is her directorial debut.
Trust me, I’m a doctor
Michael Ray

Mutilation is such a delicate thing. It really takes a carefully crafted mind to take the life of another human being. For it to be done correctly, for flesh to be flayed from bones in routine fashion, sometimes it takes a doctor’s touch. When a man is motivated, there is no intervention, just a buried scalpel in your back.

Murder Castle: The Chronicle of H.H. Holmes opened this past weekend at the Alchemist Theatre in Bay View, mixing the morose with the morbid in the twisted tale of “the good doctor” gone bad. The play takes a more psychological approach to the story of one of America’s first serial killers, but not before the rest of the building sets the scene.

The basement of the Alchemist played as half haunted house, half educational tour. Troves of rotting, fleshy bones and mutilated corpses lay strewn about, while historical posters detailed life at the end of the 19th century. Upstairs, guests were handed keys to their rooms and led into the theatre.

Witnessing the gore in the basement, one might expect a regular splatterfest, something akin to last year’s Dracula venture. Surprisingly, directors Erica Case and Greg Bach steered the ship in a different direction, producing a chilling show through sheer suspense.

Nate Press is absolutely brilliant at Holmes, twisting writer Aaron Kopec’s dialogue into dark humor and a sadistic presence. Holmes is tricky to play, requiring a subtle dance between madness and genius. Press lays the doctor’s traps perfectly and unhinges them one at a time, maintaining maximum tension throughout. Hearing the simple words, “Trust me, I’m a doctor,” is pure joy.

As the story winds on, Holmes infects the Pitezel family like a virus, first leeching onto father Ben (Sean Cundy), and then spiraling out into his wife and daughters. Grace Dewolf was exceptional as daughter Nellie, who almost embarrassingly pines for the doctor, mastering her little girl nuance and subtle charm beautifully.

Holmes’ exploits spread throughout the neighborhood and throughout Chicago. Press keeps this out-of-control psychopath in control, bringing him to the brink and back again. The whole show is marked by illusion, false promises and the power of fear – and it works.

It falls short only in size, clocking in at around three hours. Some of the dialogue is verbose and could have been reigned in a bit for a tighter, cleaner show. And while it’s understood this is a psychological treatment, a little blood thrown in here or there for show would have been nice.

Overall, though, the wait is worth it and the fact that the show is sold out through its first four weeks isn’t lost on anyone.

Review: "Murder Castle" peers into the mind of a madman.
Tom Christy
Milwaukee Performing Arts Examiner

Alchemist Theatre's third annual Halloween show is "Murder Castle: The Chronicle of H. H. Holmes", a play that takes on the sociological milieu of the late 19th century, the era which gave birth to the modern serial killer. "Murder Castle" does a brilliant job in achieving its goal of re-creating, and deconstructing, the society that produced the inhuman monster known to the world as H. H. Holmes.

In the same way that Jack the Ripper symbolizes the inherent social injustice of Victorian England's rigid class system, H. H. Holmes is the poster child for the evils of American capitalism. He was a man motivated by profit, particularly the respectability and esteem that accompanies wealth. He callously objectified people, even those who freely gave him their love and friendship, using everyone for personal gain and coldly disposing of them the moment they became worth more to him dead than alive. He was a huckster who fashioned an image for himself of educated refinement and entrepreneurial success. And the criminal justice system was blind to Holmes's atrocities for years, failing to notice his homicides until he flagrantly murdered children entrusted to his care.

That a prototypical psychopath shares so many characteristics with Corporate America is a resemblance not lost on script author Aaron Kopec. This Holmes is something of a Gilded Age Gordon Gekko, proselytizing the magnificence of American social mobility - especially the accepted practice of profiting at other's expense. In a moment of pure satire, Holmes expounds upon the value of mass marketing while hawking bottles of useless carbonated beverages, foreshadowing the business model of today's soft drink companies. His grasp of the capitalist system is profound, but his ringing endorsement is a condemnation when considering the source.

"Murder Castle" takes the unusual storytelling route of making the villain the protagonist of the play. Nate Press is a great choice as Holmes; he's got the unassuming looks and instantly likable face that Holmes must have had and used to beguile everyone around him. Unfortunately the character is a contemptible archfiend, so there's no possibility of emotionally connecting with him. We never see the husband his wives fell in love with. We never watch him struggle against his inner demons. We never understand how the man was transformed into a monster. With a main character that lacks any relatable or sympathetic qualities, and too little violence to rely on schadenfreude to keep the audience engrossed, "Murder Castle" too often feels like a live action documentary.

Where "Murder Castle" is most proficient is in including the audience into the drama. The opening scene of the play begins with Marion "The Handsome Bandit" Hedgepeth, delightfully played by Patrick Schmitz, discussing the topic of infamy with the audience. This interaction was made especially fun because Schmitz plays poker in character with guests just moments before the show. It makes for a really smooth ride from reality into the play world, and it may well be the coolest transition into suspension of disbelief ever produced.

Other strengths of "Murder Castle" include the acting, costumes, sets, and stage effects. The beautiful costumes are truly, as the cliché goes, stars in their own right. The intricate sets grimly portray a setting of desperation and blight. The synchronicity of sound and lighting masterfully creates a thunder storm which eerily punctuates the horrific climax of the play. And once again I'm stunned by the caliber of acting talent floating around this town. I can't even call out all the good performances here or my review would be program length.

"Murder Castle" is an extravaganza. The show is highly engaging and cleverly executed. The entertainment has multiple layers of appeal. The sheer volume of effort and talent that went into this production is apparent. The Halloween show at the Alchemist is definitely the event of the season.

Alchemist Theatre explores Haunting ‘Murder castle’
Russ Bickerstaff
The Shepherd Express

There´s no denying the viciousness in the story of H.H. Holmes, who confessed to 27 murders in Chicago between 1888 and 1894. Aaron Kopec, author of the Alchemist Theatre’s stage drama about Holmes, has found captivating levels of darkness be yond the surface of this hauntingly prolific serial killer. Murder Castle: The Chronicle of H.H. Holmes suffers a bit from an excessively lengthy script, but it possesses a depth and complexity common to only the best stories of the horror genre.

Nate Press plays Holmes as something of a twisted, nightmarish mutation of a Horatio Alger figure. In Murder Castle, Holmes is seen as a murderer, a salesman and a whitecollar criminal who engaged in insurance fraud. As the killer, Press ranges from a calm, professional demeanor to brutal aggression. A scene between Holmes and one of his bound victims is an eerie, intellectual journey into the nature of authority and control. The disturbing interaction between Holmes and victim is paralleled by a scene involving Holmes and his first wife and baby. Played by Liz Whitford, Holmes’ wife tells the baby that she knows what Holmes has been doing, chillingly justifying her silence on the matter.

More than straight-ahead horror, Murder Castle is an allegory about the birth of the 20th century in shadows trodden by an expanding American middle class. In the script, Kopec seems critical of both the man who killed dozens of innocents and a society that might have been able to do something about it. Grace DeWolff, as the bright daughter of Holmes’ business associate, cleverly plays a symbol of the children of the 20th century. She sees the potential of the new age, but also perilously sees Holmes as a mentor.

Scarcity And Demand
Sold-Out Local Show And Craigslist . . .

Russ Bickerstaff

Bathed in the shadows of relative obscurity, local shows can be successful in a variety of different ways. There are quite a few different signs of success in local theatre. Nothing quite says it like a sold-out show. 
An entire run of a show being sold-out? Okay, fine, extend it, but what happens when a sold-out show also sells-out of an extended run?  Aaron Kopec’s Murder Castle has completely sold-out its extended five-week run—which has got to be a good feeling. The psychological horror drama with depth has been pretty heavily promoted for quite some time . . . but Kopec recently alerted me to another level of commercial success that goes along with a sell-out show—people willing to pay inflated prices for tickets.

This past Thursday, someone posted a request in the tickets section of Craigslist. evidently willing to pay up to $100 for a pair of tickets to any upcoming performance of the show. Even a substantial mark-up like that is a fraction what people were paying for even really bad tickets to Wicked when the show breezed through town several months ago, but it’s nice to see that kind of demand for a local show . . .