John Malkovich plays loose with fourth wall in ‘The Infernal Comedy’

Andrew Messamore

Actor and director John Malkovich surprised audiences Tuesday night by waltzing through the aisles and mocking his accompanying orchestra, blurring the line between actor and character while commenting on subjects ranging from marriage to sexuality in his performance Tuesday.

His performance of “The Infernal Comedy” was hosted by Texas Performing Arts at the Bass Concert Hall, combining opera and theater to tell the life of celebrated Austrian writer and convicted serial killer Jack Unterweger, who killed himself in 1994 after being arrested in Miami and fleeing from an earlier killing spree in Vienna and Los Angeles following his pardon from a life sentence four years earlier.

Malkovich, who is known for his often eccentric performances, singled out audience members by asking them questions about their sex lives while strangling prostitutes played by famed sopranos Louise Fribo and Martene Grimson during his performance.

“Kathy Panoff [director and associate dean of Texas Performing Arts] had been thinking about bringing this piece to UT for awhile because it pairs two entirely different art forms together,” said assistant director Gene Bartholomew.

“It was less about having Malkovich here playing at the top of his form than about being able to perform a challenging, interesting and cutting-edge piece.”

The Bass Concert Hall also sought to bring more discussion from students about opera, holding a Q-and-A with John Malkovich earlier in the day and screening a video on the life of Jack Unterweger in the 6th Floor Loft, a room opened this year where students can come before performances to learn about theater and opera and discuss these subject with each other, said student development specialist Maggie Bang.

“We would love for audience members to take something unique away from tonight,” Batholomew said. “Not just an actor at the height of his craft, but a very challenging work with two accomplished singers and a baroque orchestra.”

The audience of around 1,100 was likely attracted more by the presence of a famous actor like Malkovich and not the content of the play, said Jimmy Ellerbrock, a teacher at James Bowie High School who brought his class to the performance.

“My students are part of [our school’s] scholars program and we see independent films, theatre, opera — I guess you could say my students are real theater-goers,” Ellerbrock said. “The appeal tonight is Malkovich. He’s the look, the reason we’re here.”

Others had little else than praise for the play, such as Stephanya Taylor, who is a frequenter of artistic performances and has now seen the play twice.

“I’ve seen a lot of shows, be it punk rock or opera, but I’ve never seen anything like this,” Taylor said. “It’s a singular and moving show, and I’m flat broke while paying for two performances.”