Noah Bremer’s inspired direction of Capital Crimes: The St. Paul Gangster Musical makes for a raucously entertaining history lesson at St. Paul’s History Theatre. The legendary Ma Barker, played with sociopathic grit by Cathleen Fuller, is willfully naive, shall we say, about her gangster son, Fred (Matt Erkel), and his cohort, Alvin ‘Creepy’ Karpis’s (Josiah Austen Gulding) exploits in bloody crime. St. Paul’s police chief is fine with the Karpis-Barker gang holing up in the Minnesota capitol, until they do a bank job too close to home right across the river in Minneapolis.
Bremer, known for his stylized directorial aesthetic, brings a combination of vaudeville and film noir mixed with and expressionistic edge that not only artfully suits the 1930s era with a gorgeous speakeasy set by Erica Zaffarano, but which also serves the playwright David Hawley’s crisp dialogue. Hawley has a sharp ear for the pathological, self-pitying rationalizations such hardened criminals often have.
Drew Jansen’s music and lyrics also capture that pathological edge and are for the most part sung well by the cast. And thank you E.J. Subkoviak for giving a far, far, far more honest performance as J. Edgar Hoover than Leonard DeCaprio’s in last year’s bitterly disappointing Clint Eastwood film fiasco. Though Capital Crimes is reminsicent of a stylized comedy style that you might have seen something like in a ’30s cabaret, it still tells the truth better than Eastwood’s cowardly realistic drama. And in that way this musical speaks some truth to power, which Eastwood’s film totally retreats from. So thank you also, Mr. Hawley and Mr. Jansen for reminding us that J.Edgar Hoover was really a pretty monstrous man and not some poor misunderstood gay man who if he could only have loved another man openly wouldn’t have been such a freak (that he was), like screenwriter Dustin Lance Black would have us so pathetically believe.
Josiah Austen Gulden continues to be one of the best emerging musical actors around. He’s utterly magnetic as Karpis, a man who uses people like horses chew grass. For Karpis, men are things to be killed or used sexually, but only if there are no women around. (Is he really that much different than Hoover?) And women, for him, are primarily for sex and temporary moments of security when on the run. The moment where Karpis reveals that he has had sex with men in prison is portrayed by Gulden with a matter of fact quality that is disarming.
Matt Erkel brings out visceral brutality in Fred Barker. You wanna go up on stage and strangle him. Kimberly Richardson as Paula Harmon, his significant other, gives a melodramatically juicy portrayal -and I mean that in a positive way- as a booze-ridden ‘broad’ in the classic ’30s performance style. It’s a beautifully heightened turn. Jake Endres charms as Pioneer Press reporter, Nate Bomberg. His scenes make us laugh, but we still get a sense of the danger a good reporter must navigate when dealing with dangerous criminals at such close range.
Some will legitimately say that the stylishness of this production might undercut the seriousness of the crimes involved. I respect that view but I would submit that Bremer’s stylish aesthetic jolts us into looking at the brutality portrayed in a fresh way. Consider how jaded so many have become about violence because of media and popular film images. Bremer makes us see this in a way you won’t see in media, spectator sports, video games, and action films. It’s a different sensibility that affects the viewer differently. It’s actually less passive because it’s live.
Note: Leonard DiCaprio is a brilliant accomplished actor. His body of work is remarkable and he works in integrity. Regrettably, however, he was misled by Eastwood and Black, two men one would have thought would not have done such a thing. Shame on those two.
Through May 20
History Theatre, 30 E. 10th St., St. Paul