Musicals are often full of emotion, especially during moments of song. When a woman sings of wanting the people who irk her “slain,” it’s usually not a threat to be taken literally. But in Ambition: The Female American Serial Killer Musical, now playing as part of the Planet Connections Theater Festivity in the East Village, such musical stylings do indeed foreshadow death.
Ambition is written by Asian-American playwright and performer Kaela Mei-Shing Garvin, who is also the co-creator of a web series called 2 Girls 1 Asian and helps produce and curate a bimonthly performance series called Undiscovered Countries, which is how we met. Since then, we’ve performed in each other’s respective variety shows and I’ve generally kept tabs on her work. When I heard about this project I knew I had to check it out, as I am the type who spent many childhood years up late combing through the Wikipedia pages of people who have done awful things. People, but largely men.
Why then, are the women killers– with exceptions like the occasional Park Slope horror-comedy— the ones who get brushed to the wayside? Perhaps there are factors that set women killers apart from their male counterparts. “These ladies killed the most people, but they also really did fit within what I understand to be the female serial killer prototype: they killed people in a typical female position,” says Garvin, who created the show through heavy research online and in libraries.
The women of Ambition (Jane Toppan, a nurse; Belle Gunness, who collected children like others collect dolls; and Nannie Doss, 1950s housewife) all fulfill the stereotypical feminine caretaker role in one way or another. They also all killed (mostly exploitative husbands, landlords, the occasional sibling) using poison, typically arsenic or strychnine, which at the time was an easy and untraceable way to off someone. “For a while, poison was known as the woman’s weapon of choice,” Garvin tells me. “Around the time of Gunness and Toppan, there was this big fear that everyone was going to get poisoned. I read this article that all the Penny Dreadfuls and newspapers would report these real stories of women poisoning their husbands. All of them were like, ‘He was abusive so I poisoned him, duh,’ but it sent the country into a frenzy.”
Garvin says, “because they were in these positions where they were taking care of people and they’re ladies, police weren’t paying attention, which I think also contributes to how they’re not known in the way male serial killers are. I think police and everyone were so embarrassed that these women had been killing people for like ten years…”
Ambition seeks not to sensationalize these women but to present them as fairly measured people who went to some extreme and morally-questionable lengths to get by in life. “There seemed to be a throughline that these American-based female serial killers had a really complicated system with American justice. They were predestined to have the worst economic situation, confounded by the fact that there’s no way for them to make money as women, so a lot of them took to [killing] as a sort of practical thing,” she says. Male serial killers are typically seen as calculating soulless sadists, with sociopathic tendencies that begin with killing small animal and graduate to larger fare, “But for women it’s almost the exact opposite,” theorizes Garvin. “[They’re] women who are driven to this edge, having to make a break with societal norms in order to make it, which is certainly understandable if not justified, you know?”
These women lived a fair bit ago (spanning from the late 1800s to 1950s), as it was presumably much easier to kill mass amounts of people in a time where medicine and technology was not as advanced. This time period lends itself to a slightly heightened language that Garvin is especially skilled with, resulting in some truly beautiful phrasings and monologues and catchy lyrics set to rock-driven music written in collaboration with local band Gandor Chorale, making this potentially campy subject matter into something quite compelling.
Though Ambition only has three performers, there are several scenes with multiple characters. However, none are men. There aren’t any instances of women playing men, either. “I wanted to try and see if I could just have them talk to other women,” says Garvin. “I was trying in a writerly way to see if I could get across the point of them being subjugated by the patriarchy without having the patriarchy in the room. Giving the women the good parts, and giving the men no parts.”
Tom Noonan’s Paradise Factory, despite the opulent name, is in reality a tiny unassuming black box, one of several scattered across East 4th Street’s Fourth Arts Block. This setting does not especially make for any stunning design elements or large-scale staging. The scenic design is mostly hanging fabric; most props are pantomimed, save for the “poisoned” dried prunes offered to the audience that I had the pleasure of watching an elderly patron unsuccessfully try to eat. But glitzy production value don’t seem like something Garvin or her director Lauren Z. Adleman are particularly focused on. “I grew up with musical theater, I love musicals, but I was put off from doing them for a while, because the stuff I had seen most often on Broadway until lately were these like, white spectacles of dancing power and belting,” Garvin tells me. Instead, she has created a straightforward piece focused more on song and story.
As Ambition progresses it becomes clearer that not only do these women have fairly inconvenient lives they’re coping with unconventionally but have also experienced trauma that they’re still living with. They aren’t just heartless wretches exploiting their caregiver role, they’ve been made to feel ugly as women, lost children, experienced abuse, witnessed violence at a young age. It’s not to say these are the express reasons they’re killing, but such events certainly wouldn’t give someone a brighter outlook of the world. The portrait painted of these women in this show is by no means the full extent of their lives; Garvin says she hopes those who leave intrigued will go on to do their own research.
Garvin seems drawn to marrying the musical form with stories from history where not a lot of people make it out alive: her last musical, The History of the Donner Party, took from the classic story of American travelers driven to cannibalism juxtaposed with an exploration of a questionable book claiming to tell the honest truth about the Donners. With her second attempt of this genre, she very well may have found her niche.
‘Ambition: The Female American Serial Killer Musical’ continues on July 7 at Tom Noonan’s Paradise Factory’s Downstairs Theater, 64 E 4th Street, East Village. 7pm. Tickets are $18. More info here.