L.A.'s Most Grisly True Crime Cases Come to Life in This Cabaret-Like Show

It’s a hazy and peculiarly bright Sunday afternoon, a 70-degree day when the quality of the light, if not the thermometer, tells you it's winter in Southern California.

A group of musicians, actors, playwrights and singers gathers in the living room of a Silver Lake condo whose fuchsia walls echo the bougainvillea lining the streets below. Hovering over the miles and myth of Sunset Boulevard, this artistic collective brings to life the likes of Elizabeth Short and Rodney Alcala through music and monologue, and the cozy pink walls seem to take on a sinister shade as they become witness to these tales of true crime.

The condo belongs to Luis Reyes, a playwright who also runs a production company, and his wife, Claire Rifelj, a jazz singer and art historian. They are overseeing a rehearsal for the fifth iteration of True Crime at the Three Clubs. Reyes describes the evening as “a night of short plays about crime embedded within an evening of jazz.” But that seems too simple to define this cabaret-like show, which meanders between songs and theatrical meditations on famous crimes, criminals and victims in the City of Angels. Reyes provides this easily digestible pitch, but then says, “It transcends that description because you find unintentional connections with everything, and the music moves you forward in this inexorable way.”

The evenings have a loose structure — four vignettes bookended by song. The writers choose the crime they wish to feature and two songs to accompany it. Reyes circulates a list of crimes for inspiration, but he encourages writers to come in with their own weird and wacky discoveries. There are no guidelines as to time period or requirements for a thematic throughline, but often one arises as if by fate. “I don’t want to avoid noir, but I also don’t want noir necessarily to have to characterize it all,” Reyes says. “But when you do crime, almost everyone falls into that rhythm, no matter what the crime is.”

Reyes began hosting True Crime in 2015 as an outlet to produce more theater beyond the time-consuming process of developing a full-length play. He and his collaborators, Chris Rossi and Sharon Yablon, all shared a passion for crime stories. Reyes’ wife already worked as a jazz singer, and so, the structure arose from their natural talents. Now in its fifth outing, the evenings feature the work of different writers each time (with Rossi, Yablon and Reyes almost always taking a place in the rotation) — and Reyes aiming to highlight a variety of voices and provide a platform for young writers.

Crimes they have featured range from well-known cases of the distant past (the Black Dahlia) and more recent past (Biggie Smalls’ murder) to macabre gems hiding in plain sight (the Dating Game Killer). Reyes doesn’t expect or even want audiences to be familiar with the cases but instead to discover the crimes as the vignettes unfold.

Watching a rough rehearsal, the proceedings feel like a tone poem on the long shadow that headline-grabbing crimes cast over the sunny streets of Los Angeles. They open with a song called “Adieu,” sung in a style reminiscent of a noir chanteuse serenading the likes of Fred MacMurray and Barbara Stanwyck. It jumps into action with a piece by Vanessa Cate. Actress Anna Gion portrays Elizabeth Short, describing her hunger to be immortalized. The piece closes with a metaphorical representation of her dismemberment, fading into another jazz tune and then jumps decades with The Association's “Never My Love,” steering us from the smoky noir feel of the ’40s to a beachy, hippie vibe of the ’60s.

Next we hear the Chris Rossi–penned monologue of a high school teacher guilty of statutory rape. She explains, “There are no victims, only volunteers,” and her haunting monologue allows you to peek inside her psychology. The piece is so effective that it leads Reyes to joke, “It really does make statutory rape not seem so bad.”

He may be joking, but this is part of the appeal of True Crime. It doesn’t pass judgment on the figures involved so much as it gives the audience the chance to view them in a different way. The artists are not here to bring criminals to reckoning, avenge victims or exploit the sensationalism of a crime. “What I try to encourage the writers to do is bounce it off the crime,” Reyes says.

Despite the conceit that the evening centers on “true” crime, he doesn't want his writers or audiences to look for explicit facts; rather, he wants them to think more deeply about the relationship between our city’s mythology and its storied criminal past. He points to a previous play that focused on freeway car chases but didn’t take any one crime as its inspiration. “It was ‘true’ crime in that it reflected this true thing about L.A. ... So I do stretch what ‘true’ actually means a little bit,” he says.

In recounting these stories of victims, murderers, detectives and more, what are they hoping to say about Los Angeles? Why focus on crime? “There are a lot of weird crimes that happen elsewhere, but I think there’s something about the proximity to fame and stardom that colors all the crime [here],” Reyes says. The pieces in development for this go-round echo that sentiment, juxtaposing the darkness and brutality of the crimes with the flashy gleam of Hollywood, fame and the hollow promise of immortality. The ineluctable pull between sunshine and noir, flashbulb and fade to black.

True-crime tours dot the city; museum exhibits and crime-inspired films abound; novels and nonfiction books probing old and new mysteries line the shelves of our bookstores and libraries. Los Angeles and all who live here or have ever been enchanted or disappointed by it find themselves drawn to stories of the city’s underbelly. That’s what ultimately drives Reyes to keep producing these performance evenings — because the figures in the stories and the storytellers become a part of the city’s ethos.

Reyes discusses a short play he wrote for a previous evening inspired by Canadian tourist Elisa Lam, who came to Los Angeles and ended up dead in a hotel water tank. He imagines her inner monologue: “I am becoming part of the legend. My body has been dissolved into the very fabric of the city.”  By bearing witness to True Crime, so too do ours.

True Crime at Three Clubs, 1123 Vine St., Hollywood; Sat., Feb. 11, 8 p.m. threeclubs.com/events/true-crime.

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