Edinburgh Fringe 2021
Welcome to the twisted world of serial murderer Ed Gain, portrayed in great detail by actor Simon Shaw.
Unnerving. Unsettling. Haunting. Terrifying. And scary. Welcome to the world of a serial killer. And a warning – this show is not for the faint of heart (it is aptly rated 18+).
Talented actor Simon Shaw invites us into the bizarre world of Ed Gein. Known as the Butcher of Plainfield or the Plainfield Ghoul, Gein was a real-life body snatcher who dug up graves of recently buried middle-aged women he saw as resembling his beloved late mother. He would dismember the bodies and make the parts into household items like furniture and clothing, including a full body suit made of skin. In November, 1957, the police raided Gein’s farmhouse and found the collection of skulls and other gruesome memorabilia – under the floorboards, hence the show title.
Shaw’s production opens in a bar with his Gein character manipulating two of the skulls in a conversation with the barmaid, hoping to entice her to enter into a relationship with him. He repeats this scene as Gain becomes more obsessed. He is leaning on a box, which doubles as a coffin, likely holding one of the dead bodies that he has unearthed. Throughout the show, Gein continues to seek more “company” from both live and deceased women, as he continually descends into his imaginary and macabre world.
Gein’s mother was the greatest influence in his life. She taught Gein that women and sex were evil. “If I was my mother, I’d be happy. Then everything would make sense”, Shaw recites in the play. Karen Littejohn dramatically voices the mother throughout the production, with gusto and a tinge of madness. Rachael Bellis voices the Barmaid, while Shady Murphy voices The Box.
How does one understand the world of someone so misguided and mentally ill? Shaw brilliantly captures the madness, the stutter, the facial expressions, and the body movement of a madman. He is very convincing as a delusional man divorced from reality. He dances with the skeletons, talks to them, and even plays peek-a-boo with a child’s skeleton. Shaw’s pasty-white thin frame, which is often shown not fully clothed, accents the depravity of the character. Shaw manages to humanize Gein, creating some empathy for the character who hasn’t been able to form a relationship with anyone other than his dead mother.
The production benefits greatly from expert makeup, sound, and lighting design. Spooky wind sounds are a predictor of something nefarious. Rain, lightening and thunder transport the audience to an evening at a graveyard. Dramatic lighting effects on a very dark stage make Shaw look villainous. Original music effectively enhances the mood and moves the story along. Eerie red and white face make-up contributes to the imaging of Gain as mentally unstable.
The story of Ed Gain inspired many books and movie characters, including Norman Bates from Hitchcock’s “Psycho”, Leatherface from “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre”, and Buffalo Bill from “The Silence of the Lambs”, which has spawned the new TV series “Clarice”.
Although it is engaging, the play feels too long and too repetitive. It was originally performed live at Edinburgh Fringe in 2019. In person in a darkened theatre, it would have more dramatic impact. However, it would be more effective shortened for the online version. I would have liked to have seen the actual arrest and trial of Gein, who participated in his own defense. He was judged competent to stand trial, found guilty of murder, but then declared legally insane and sent to a psychiatric institution, where he died in 1984 at age 77.