Abdoh was born in Iran in 1963 and died from AIDS in 1995, and during his too-brief life he was hailed as a "theatrical visionary" for his wildly theatrical and visceral performances. Among Abdoh's most famous productions is The Law of Remains, inspired by the murders of serial killer Jeffrey Dahmer. In the final chapter of Murder Most Queer, I analyze this remarkable play and its critical reception. Here's an excerpt:
The first theatrical production about Jeffrey Dahmer was perhaps the most stunning—and the most open to diverse interpretations. In February 1992, avant-garde theater maker Reza Abdoh staged his production of The Law of Remains in the abandoned ballrooms of the Diplomat Hotel in Manhattan. The New York Times heralded this world premiere by proclaiming, “The enfant terrible of sex and death has created yet another demonic work of experimental theater.” As a writer and director, Abdoh eschewed realist notions of character and plot to create dense and layered performances with viscerally affecting sounds and images. Critic Stephen Holden described The Law of Remains as “a blood-soaked pageant of contemporary Grand Guignol depicting mass murder, sexual mutilation, necrophilia, and cannibalism.” Abdoh’s postmodern aesthetic intersperses found materials, including interviews and news reports about Dahmer, with scenarios inspired by the S&M club scene, African dances, and invocations from the Egyptian Book of the Dead. These scenes are joined by the story of Andy Warhol creating a movie about Dahmer, here named Jeffrey Snarling. Abdoh’s fourteen actors push the audience to different sections of the hotel, witnessing seven stations in the journey of Snarling’s soul through scenes of sex and violence, until the performance ends in Heaven.
Critics differed about the meaning and merit of the production, but most agreed that it was, in the words of New York Times critic Stephen Holden, “one of the angriest theater pieces ever hurled at a New York audience.” While Holden seemed to admire Abdoh’s skill, he complained that “the sheer density of the noise and tumult make it hard to follow” and that the production “seems to want to punish as much as to enlighten” the audience. Alisa Solomon in the Village Voice also found the performance elusive in its frenzy and assaultive in its “high pitch of rage.” Yet certain elements of Abdoh’s nightmare vision did resonate for both critics, and these elements speak to the ways in which Dahmer, as a gay serial killer, has functioned in American culture.
Along with noting the fury at the heart of The Law of Remains, both Holden and Solomon acknowledge the play’s commentary on a culture that turns murderous criminals into celebrities. But rather than focusing on mass media, Abdoh depicts Andy Warhol—the master of Pop Art who died in 1987—as the avatar of America’s obsession with fame and celebrity. By putting the serial killer Jeffrey Snarling into a movie, Abdoh’s Warhol is exploiting him as a commodity, creating him in a “factory” and selling him like a can of soup. Warhol and Snarling are not protagonist and antagonist as much as they are two sides of the same coin: two gay men who gain celebrity in America, one for works of art (creation), one for acts of murder (destruction). Perhaps Warhol can also be seen as a stand-in for Abdoh, the auteur who offers an artistic representation of a celebrity serial killer that is somewhat different from the mass media image, but still attached to the culture of commodity and consumption. [pages 160-161]
The chapter goes on to discuss Abdoh's use of Dahmer as a "performer" and as a metaphorical embodiment of AIDS, as well as Abdoh's synthesis of rage and mourning, particularly when focusing on Dahmer's victims. Dahmer still haunts the American imagination, and Abdoh's Law of Remains brilliantly confronts the audiences with the brutality of his crimes and complicates his cultural significance.