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‘Hinter’ at Steep: Down on farm, bodies pile up as thriller flips narrative on its head. Go figure.

Submitted by on Feb 21, 2018 – 5:54 pm

Review: “Hinter” by Calamity West, world premiere at Steep Theatre through March 17. ★★★
By Nancy Malitz

When a notorious axe murder goes unsolved for the better part of a century, you can count on a playwright’s Whodunnit instincts to come out of hiding. Make that Who-mighta-dunnit, because a playwright’s sandbox is fiction after all.

Thus it is that Chicago has given us this season not one but two hypothetical airings of the twisted detail behind actual massacres of gory note. The first was Firebrand Theatre’s musical “Lizzie,” which doled out splatter ponchos for the folks in the first-row seats and imagined why Lizzie Borden’s father and the “second Mrs. Borden” (not their mom) could have had it comin’ back in 1892.

Now comes the intricately scary thriller of a puzzle play by talented Chicago writer Calamity West. Her subject is Bavaria’s rival candidate for atrocity, the half-dozen “Hinterkaifeck murders,” which took place in 1922 on a ramshackle farmstead in the middle of nowhere, a mere speck on the map about a half day from Munich.

The play opens on a pitch-black night in the outback, when a terrified young woman enters a bleak cabin, gasps out a near-silent, wheezing call after a missing child, and forces herself to climb the stairs. There, we learn soon enough, she meets the edge of a hacker’s blade.

What transpires next, in the rough-hewn farmhouse kitchen done to a dilapidated T by the set designer Lauren Nigri, is the immediate aftermath of this unexplained horror. There has been a murder, we know. More than one, we learn. Days ago, from the smell implied. The rest we glean in bits and jabs from a variety of people who all seem strange – and could be guilty – because, let’s face it, this is a Whodunnit.

Neighbors show up, and a postmaster, and a weird (and maybe corrupt) inspector from the city. And although there’s hardly even a stick of bread – this being the famine after the First World War, when the majority of Germany’s 13 million soldiers were casualties and farms were in shambles – there is a suspicious amount of money hidden away. More bloody corpses are found stacked in the barn. And there have been rumors, for months now, that the farm is haunted.

Act II gives us an intriguing inversion: We see events that went on prior to the murders, that is, before everything we just saw in Act I. Playwright West is good on motivation while doling out secrets slowly; she is full of surprises right through to the end. But I found myself wishing for a pause button, or for episodes a la “24,” the better to digest the density of its creepy twists and turns.

That said, for a true-crime mystery that has gone unsolved for nearly a century, one must expect layers of false leads and gossip-worthy complexities. Hats off to a playwright worth watching. I doubt I was the only person in the audience who wanted to sit through Act I of this brain-teaser again, just to follow the crumb trail of clues.

What “Hinter” does not provide – and I think this is a strength – is a Hercule Poirot. There is no hero sleuth, smarter than the rest of us, to figure out what happened. I’m not telling either. I remain content to provide only a few hints about the chilling characters we meet during the course of the white-knuckle unwinding directed by Brad DeFabo Akin.

Jim Poole is riveting as a farmer in late middle age, nasty to the core, who rules a creaky farm with his subservient wife (played by Melissa Reimer) and daughter (Eunice Woods); Peter Moore plays the eccentric inspector who comes to solve the murders, and the rest of the cast comprises a high-energy cocktail of twitchy catalysts and enablers.

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