A fierce feminist fantasy in ‘Kill the Ripper’ from We Happy Few

The exceptionally entertaining dark comedy is set in Victorian London where three scrappy women set out to whack the notorious Jack.

The survival of women at risk of men’s violence is not a popular topic. A lot of culture helps folks not have to think about it, in fact. But that near-universal vulnerability gets turned into a Valkyrie-like battle cry in Fairlith Harvey’s Kill the Ripper, a fiercely funny feminist fantasy now playing at Capital Hill Arts Workshop in a ripping good production from We Happy Few.

Harvey’s dark comedy is set in Victorian London during the terror reign of Jack the Ripper. Its central conceit is that three women in prostitution — all of whom have had (ahem) their fill of men — decide to learn self-defense so that they can off the notorious woman-slaughterer before he offs them. The play’s title is their imperative. Will they or won’t they succeed? is the hook.

But first, the play has fun in the form of a giggly gaggle of so-called fallen women who jest in the face of unknown danger by dishing on the quirks of their male clientele.

Gabby Wolfe as Viola, Bri Houtman as Pudding, and Paige O’Malley as Kit in ‘Kill the Ripper.’ Photo by Mark Williams Hoelscher.

Viola (a tough-cookie Gabby Wolfe) is their ringleader. “History is full of ferocious women,” she tells the others, to rev them up. “I’m tired of feeling so risky just walking out the front door.” Her personal dream, besides whacking Jack, is to strike it rich as a dominatrix.

Pudding (a deceptively ditzy Bri Houtman) is actually one smart cookie; she’s fond of quoting Shakespeare and dreams of making it on the stage. “You see? The courage I just displayed?” she says after smacking a bothersome jerk. “That was all acting.”

Kit (an earthily ribald Paige O’Malley) spends her spare time knitting and dreams of a better life off the streets in the relative safety of a “whore home.” Summing up the play’s anxiety undercurrent pretty well, she says to Viola:

KIT: Any man we go off with has the luxury of killing us anytime, if it strikes their fancy.
VIOLA: I know.
KIT: You just have to be vigilant. That’s all you can really do.

Given what’s at stake, the three scrappy women decide to join the local vigilance committee and get themselves a combat coach, believing that’ll further their plot.

Tucked sensitively inside the play’s farcical facade is some real empathy for these women whose lot in life is to be for sale — as in this exchange between Kit and Viola:

KIT: What started you on the path of the fallen woman?
VIOLA: Selling my company is easier than standing in a workhouse. I also have to feed my family, and bathe my mother, and help my daughter with things, and clean up the things she spills, which is everything, and try to raise her properly, and make sure she reads, and so I do this because if I were working in a factory all day… I simply could not.

It turns out, Kit and Viola have a crush on each other; and suffusing the play are pointed politics, as when Pudding says:

PUDDING: I can do anything a man can do…short of participating in democracy.

A wicked-versatile Robert Pike plays assorted men who drop by: a lamplighter, a police officer, a cleric, the aforementioned jerk, an actor, a newsie, a caped assailant, and lots more. The treatment each fella receives from these fallen women ranges variously from humorous to horrible (and taken as a whole they remind one of the men Mrs. Lovett baked into pies).

TOP: Robert Pike as an actor teaching techniques of stage combat to Bri Houtman as Pudding, Gabby Wolfe as Viola, and Paige O’Malley as Kit; ABOVE: a dream sequence in which Bri Houtman as Pudding and Paige O’Malley as Kit fight Robert Pike as Jack the Ripper, in ‘Kill the Ripper.’ Photos by Mark Williams Hoelscher.

All the women have credible Cockney accents (at times so thick it takes a bit to catch their drift), and Pike does more than a dozen dialects to delineate his entrances as different men (dialect coach Jenna Berk was busy).

Megan Holden’s set is an earth-tone wood-frame approximation of doorways and alleyways with a pile of crates stage left, a lamplight overhead, and bits of brick underfoot. Projection screen windowpanes serve up blood-red shadow plays of gruesome killings. Meanwhile, the lighting design by Jason Aufdem-Brinke shifts moods from to everyday to eerie and subtly puts actors in highlight pools for special speeches. Pleasantly, the costumes designed by Madi Wentela for the women suggest the period without suggestive pandering, and the variations she devised for Pike nicely differentiate his many men.

An especially lovely touch is Ethan Balis’ original music — featuring violin, flute, and keys — which offers a charmingly disarming interlude between scenes of a typically intense tenor.

Under Megan Behm’s vibrantly bustling direction, a boundlessly broad acting style allows for brazen interaction among characters and hilarious drop-dead takes to the house. The show is slam-packed with stage combat: astonishing skirmishes choreographed by Casey Kaleba. (Among the play’s best bits is the scene where the women get training from an actor in stage combat, the better to kill the Ripper — their practice pummeling of Pike packed in pillows is pure clownshow.) The cast also displays some arresting choreography: Act One ends with a surreal dream ballet of bloody carnage represented by yards of red ribbon streaming out of much-buffeted bodies.

We Happy Few’s production of Kill the Ripper manages to be exceptionally entertaining while doing justice to the problem that prompts the plot: the gendered injustice of life as a woman in a world peopled with predatory men. The women take a stab at being lighthearted about it  —

KIT: If every man I met didn’t mock me, grab me, talk to me as if I were a child, or be a potential murderer at me…
VIOLA: Some are perfectly nice, you know that.
KIT: Which ones?
VIOLA: I don’t know.
KIT: That’s my point.
PUDDING: Jesus!
VIOLA: Well, yes, but he’s yet to show up, hasn’t he?

— yet we never ever doubt that these women are dead serious.

Running Time: Two hours plus a 15-minute intermission.

Kill the Ripper plays through November 18, 2023 (at 7 p.m. on Thursdays, Fridays, and Saturdays plus Tuesday, October 31), presented by We Happy Few performing at Capitol Hill Arts Workshop, 545 7th St SE, Washington, DC. Tickets are $25 and available online.

The program for Kill the Ripper is online here.

COVID Safety:  Masking is requested for audience members in the theater.

Kill the Ripper
By Fairlith Harvey
Directed by Megan Behm

FEATURING
Bri Houtman as Pudding
Paige O’Malley as Kit
Gabby Wolfe as Viola
​Robert Pike as A Lot of Men

Produced by Kerry McGee
Production Management: Rachel Dixon
Stage Management: Makenzi Wentela
Assistant Stage Management: Katie Gallagher
Fight Choreography: Casey Kaleba
Set Design: Megan Holden
Lighting Design: Jason Aufdem-Brinke
Technical Direction: Martin Bernier
Costume Design: Madi Wentela
Original Composition & Sound Design: Ethan Balis
Props Design: Rose Talbot
Dialects: Jenna Berk
Dramaturgy: Alex Berrios
Graphic Design: Stefany Pesta
Photographer: Mark Williams Hoelsche

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John Stoltenberg is executive editor of DC Theater Arts. He writes both reviews and his Magic Time! column, which he named after that magical moment between life and art just before a show begins. In it, he explores how art makes sense of life—and vice versa—as he reflects on meanings that matter in the theater he sees. Decades ago, in college, John began writing, producing, directing, and acting in plays. He continued through grad school—earning an M.F.A. in theater arts from Columbia University School of the Arts—then lucked into a job as writer-in-residence and administrative director with the influential experimental theater company The Open Theatre, whose legendary artistic director was Joseph Chaikin. Meanwhile, his own plays were produced off-off-Broadway, and he won a New York State Arts Council grant to write plays. Then John’s life changed course: He turned to writing nonfiction essays, articles, and books and had a distinguished career as a magazine editor. But he kept going to the theater, the art form that for him has always been the most transcendent and transporting and best illuminates the acts and ethics that connect us. He tweets at @JohnStoltenberg. Member, American Theatre Critics Association.

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