Self-Defense, or the death of some salesmen

From 02/07/2002 to 03/03/2002


Seven white men have been found dead along I-95 in Florida. When her girlfriend betrays her, a prostitute is arrested and charged with their murders. She says the men tried to rape her; the police say she’s a serial killer. A fascinating and feisty piece of theatre inspired by an actual case, SELF DEFENSE portrays the events leading up to and surrounding the trial of Jo, modeled on the real life character of Aileen Wuornos.


The reviews are in.

“Self Defense” is a trick-filled play, one that messes with the audience’s sensibilities, sympathies and sense of time. Dense with language and ideas, the play’s very trickiness sometimes undercuts itself.

The play is based on the real-life events of Aileen Wuornos, a Florida prostitute who killed a half-dozen men during the late 1980s. In each case, Wuornos claimed that her victims tried to rape and kill her and that she acted in self-defense. She was convicted, sentenced to death and recently waived the remaining appeals that stand between her and Florida’s electric chair.

Playwright Carson Kreitzer uses Wuornos’ story to examine a host of questions about a strata of American society most of us read about but never see. Can a prostitute be raped? What role do class, gender and sexual orientation have in the administration of justice?What is the role of the media in shaping opinions about crime and punishment? And what is the relative value of a human life?

These questions weave, interlocked and tendril-like, through a play that slashes its way through time and space. We see Wuornos’ fictional stand-in ? a character named Jo ? on death row, at home with her lover, in police interrogation rooms, at strip joints. We don’t climb into her head so much as we’re offered a recitation of her circumstances and her actions and then differing perspectives on those actions.

Still, there’s a nightmarish quality to Kreitzer’s script, a series of quick shots flailing from one setting to the next. That quality is certainly intentional, but it fuzzes up what might have been a clearer, more compelling inquiry. That fuzzing-up, too, is intentional, giving the piece an impressionistic feel that, to some degree, sacrifices the playwright’s intentions for her aesthetics.

Director Wendy Knox indulges the playwright’s pursuit of aesthetics, injecting ? among other things ? live and recorded video segments and an episode of low-brow strip-club dancing that’s squirmingly accurate in its not-so-quiet desperation. Though her direction is as rapid-fire as Kreitzer’s script, it doesn’t go very far in clarifying the playwright’s intent.

Frank Theatre veteran Phyllis Wright plays Jo with a wry toughness. Jo’s loyalties are misplaced and her view of the world tragic in its myopia. Both nature and nurture have slighted her, but Wright finds? well, dignity’s not the right word ? but the internal gyroscope that drives Jo to do what she does.

The rest of the eight-member cast revolves around Wright’s Jo, playing lovers, johns, coroners, cops, shrinks and hookers. It’s a rogue’s gallery, indeed, but for the most part, the ensemble handles its duties well.

With his expressive face, Tom Sherohman occasionally bug-eyes a little too much, and Maria Asp overreaches once in a while as the born-again Christian who adopts Jo. Ron Menzel is nicely understated as a cop with a brain and a conscience. Bianca Pettis morphs smoothly from being a hooker with a huge Afro one minute and a feminist apologist the next. And Kim Schultz brings the right amount of rough, dissipated entitlement to her role as Jo’s lover, Lu.

“Self Defense” is a complicated and flawed play. Though it stumbles on its own construction, it’s difficult not to admire its ambition.

Dominic Papatola, St. Paul Pioneer Press

“Self Defense, or death of some salesmen” is caught between playwright Carson Kreitzer’s desire to create a fictional heroine unjustly railroaded by the system, and the real-life character who inspired the story.

Staged by Frank Theatre, “Self Defense” is based on the case of Aileen Wuornos, who was convicted in 1992 for killing six men in Florida. In the first case, Wuornos claimed her victim had raped her and she acted in self-defense, an argument rejected by the jury. She then pleaded guilty to the other murders and was sentenced to die. The story was rekindled in November 1992 when an NBC reporter revealed that Wuornos’ first victim had spent 10 years in jail for a violent rape in another state, lending credence to her story.

Kreitzer leverages that fact to create a polemic about how Wuornos got a raw deal from a justice system skewed against women and the disenfranchised — particularly prostitutes. Wuornos was working as a prostitute at the time of the killings.

Here’s where the fictional/real world element makes it difficult to accept Kreitzer’s work on its own terms. She wants it both ways — ignoring enough of Wuornos’ story to create a sympathetic fictional persona while insisting the real-life case makes a specific point.

The piece overplays its hand, presenting “Jolene” as a rough but honest woman who approaches Messianic status as she awaits the electric chair. When she’s told on death row that murders of prostitutes in Florida have dropped from 11 to 4 — the same number of men she originally was accused of killing — she exclaims, “I could’ve saved as many people as I killed.” I took that line to indicate Jolene’s absorption in self-delusion, but in the greater context of the play it seemed more like a justification.

Kreitzer’s writing, fluid and lyrical in many cases, occasionally sounds thinly obvious, as when a police officer begs for permission to arrest Jolene, screaming, “White, middle-aged men are at risk!”

Director Wendy Knox suggests in program notes that Jolene shouldn’t be viewed as a victim but it’s hard to accept it without a greater sense of ambiguity about the character. Phyllis Wright is a marvelous, natural actor who catches the rage and tics of Jolene.

Supporting roles and arguments are cardboard stereotypes of the wicked system. Nonetheless, a good group of actors led by Maria Asp, Bianca Pettis, Tom Sherohman and Ron Menzel get the essence of what’s intended in these caricatures.

Graydon Royce, Minneapolis Star Tribune