Around 30 years ago, a psychologically disturbed man named Pedro Lopez raped and killed more than 300 young girls across South America. In 1980, he became known as the "Monster of the Andes."
While his story disturbs many people, it inspired playwright Tom Deiker to write Innocence, a play that explores the choices made by individuals who encountered Lopez and how those choices may have led to more murders. The play lays out a dramatic range of attitudes about the serial murderer.
Deiker submitted Innocence to Dreamwell Theatre’s Writers Joust Festival: A Fear Festival, and the theater’s board chose the play as the winner. The Night I Kissed Osama bin Laden: A 9/11 Comedy, by Joe Jennison, and Divergence, by Janet Schlapkohl, were the two runners-up; they have had stage readings.
Dreamwell will present the world première of Innocence at 7:30 p.m. Friday at the Unitarian Universalist Society, 10 S. Gilbert St. The show will continue Saturday; admission will be $8 for students, $10 for seniors, and $12 for general admission.
This marked the first year of the Writer’s Joust Festival; Dreamwell had asked for submissions in 2009 and received numerous scripts, said Matt Falduto, one of the members of Dreamwell’s board who read the submitted plays. The board members chose the winner and runners-up and announced them at the DreamHome event this past summer.
The festival is a part of the Taboo Bijou theme of Dreamwell’s current season; all shows are intended to push boundaries by confronting subjects that are often difficult or inappropriate to discuss. The theater members decided that "subjects we fear to talk about" would be an appropriate theme for the Writers Joust.
"I do think the theme is a great one, and it is bound to bring different thoughts and ideas into Iowa City, which is always a good thing," playwright Jennison said.
Falduto said one of his favorite part of the festival will be watching the reactions of the playwrights when they see the readings or performances of their shows.
"I am a playwright myself, so I understand that feeling of seeing your work on stage for the first time," he said. "[It is] pride and fear all wrapped up in one."
Deiker feels the same way.
"This is my most exciting experience in my 68-year-old novice playwriting career," the Innocence author said.
Friday’s première will be the first staging of one of his full-length plays. Deiker used his background in clinical psychology — he spent most of his career researching, developing, and evaluating public mental-health programs — to craft the piece. His strong interest in human aggression is demonstrated in Innocence.
Deiker said he is excited about seeing how the production turns out — he hasn’t been to any of the rehearsals that director Pauline Tyer and the cast and crew have worked on for the past six weeks.
"Pauline is someone who knows how to work with a brand-new play and has massaged the script through the rehearsal process," Falduto said.
During Innocence, the audience will see actor Kenneth Van Egdon turn into the serial rapist and murderer, Pedro Lopez.
"Though it sounds odd to say out loud, playing Pedro is a kind of dream role for me," he said.
Van Egdon typically acts in comedies and musicals in the Professional Improv Troupe Comic in Action, so this role allows him to stretch his acting muscles. After reading a synopsis of the play, he wanted a role.
"I love to entertain people and make them laugh in my day-to-day life anyway, but it will be nice to leave audiences with a role that they will remember long after they leave the theater," he said.
To help realize the character of a pedophile serial killer, he gathered inspiration from some of his favorite television shows, including "CSI" and "Law & Order SVU." But he resisted the urge to view any documentaries about Lopez.
"I felt my obligation was to the playwright and to the director to bring their visions to light," Van Egdon said.
Along with his character, others include an interviewer and a mother, teacher, nun, and warden.
The interviewer is a journalist from Colombia who traces the creation of the "Monster of the Andes" from talking with Lopez and those who knew him best, such as his mother, a teacher, and a nun.
The interviews lead the journalist to understand why Lopez became the Monster and to the idea that there is originally innocence in everyone, but experience changes that.
Emotional stories similar to Innocence make up the plays that were runners-up.
The Night I Kissed Osama Bin Laden was inspired by 9/11, then mixed with Halloween — the main character of the play refuses to allow the tragedy to affect the fun of the holiday.
Jennison started writing The Night I Kissed Osama Bin Laden in October 2001, but because he was hesitant to share his play, he let it sit unseen for years. He decided to resurrect it once he saw Dreamwell’s theme for the playwriting contest.
Even after nine years, he is still not sure if the play is appropriate or politically correct, but he leaves that up to the audience.
Schlapkohl’s Divergence focuses on a farm family affected by a tragedy and examined under a microscope. Everyone, it appears, has a secret.
Dreamwell has been successful with its first Writer’s Joust Festival, those involved said. It’s provided opportunities to many areas of theatrical talent and allows new theater to be introduced to audiences.
"The festival is a great way to showcase some of the talent — written and theatrical — we have here in Iowa, and Innocence is a great example of that talent," Van Egdon said.