Le Théâtre du Grand-Guignol opened in Paris in 1897, and specialized in evenings of short plays calculated to shock the audience with subjects rarely discussed in polite society: prostitution, sadomasochism, necrophilia, fetishes, incest, rape, and torture. Usually the more outré the subject matter the funnier the play. (The theatre liked to boast that it averaged two faintings a night among the audience.) However, the Guignol also created plays of disturbing psychological import, focusing on insanity and other altered mental states. Of course, the theater was a smashing success well into the 1940s and ran until the 1960s.
Russell Blackwood and Daniel Zilber, co-founders of the local theater company Thrillpeddlers, had the terrific idea of reviving the Guignol’s one-acts for an annual Halloween show, and have been staging the more successful Guignol plays, as well as new plays in the Guignol tradition for 11 years now. This year’s incarnation, Shocktoberfest!! 2010: Kiss of Blood features two original works by playwright Rob Keefe and an adaptation (by Zilber) of a 1929 Guignol sensation, the evening’s title piece. Blackwood ably directs all three pieces. Only two of the one-acts are successful, but the show still makes for a scary, funny, and bloody evening of theatre.
The opener, Lips of the Damned, by Keefe, but suggested by the 1906 “Le Veuve” (“The Widow,” a nickname for the guillotine), has all the classic Guignol tropes. A fin de siècle Parisian museum of atrocities (featuring a guillotine and “The Scold’s Bridle,” a medieval contraption to punish nagging wives) is about to undergo fumigation for an infestation of rats. This strikes the museum’s primary patroness (Kara Emry) as the perfect time to satisfy her adulterous lust with the workman André (Daniel Bakken). Producing a riding crop from beneath her skirts, she persuades André to put his head in the guillotine and let her yoke him with rope also tucked away in her voluminous undergarments. “Is there anything more erotic?” she asks in blissful anticipation. “I can think of several things,“ replies her hapless, trussed-up paramour. Madame’s fun is unfortunately spoiled when her husband (Flynn DeMarco) catches them in flagrante and takes advantage of the situation to plot an entertainingly horrific demise for the illicit lovers. Emry and DeMarco are great fun, while Chris Paulina and L. Ron Hubby (clearly a stage name) lurk hilariously as the creepy husband and wife rat-catchers. Lips is twenty kinds of wrong adding up to all kinds of right.
The evening’s second piece, The Empress of Colma attempts to fuse drag performance with Grand Guignol. (Clearly, Thrillpeddlers were influenced by their acclaimed revival of the legendary Cockettes’ drag/camp extravaganza, Pearls Over Shanghai, currently playing in repertory with Shocktoberfest.) Unfortunately, The Empress of Colma is a disaster, mainly due to Keefe’s script. Three drag queens vie with each other in a basement over who really deserves the drag pageant title “Empress of Colma.” A friend studying to be a dental hygienist supplies them with sodium pentathol, and gory truths are revealed. The actors (Russell Blackwood, Birdie Bob Watt, and Eric Tyson Wertz) attack their lines with gusto, but the dialogue is mainly snarky non-sequiturs that aren’t particularly funny. Keefe’s scenario is all attitude and no wit, and the Guignol bits at the end feel tacked on and pointless. Kara Emry, as the hygienist in training, provides one funny bit when she flosses her teeth as the queens bitch each other out, but otherwise the piece is tiresome.
But the evening’s triumph comes in the third play, Kiss of Blood, Zilber’s English adaptation of Le Baiser du sang, by Jean Aragny and Francis Neilson. The scene opens with Dr. Leduc (Flynn DeMarco again, sporting a John-Waters-ish mustache) drilling haphazardly into the skull of his patient. The patient, not surprisingly, doesn’t survive the procedure. “It’s because he was brought here ten minutes too late,” the doctor explains. “You don’t believe it had more to do with the drilling?” his able assistant, Dr. Voulone (the excellent Bonni Suval) asks. As Voulone mops up the gore from the operation, a mysteriously insistent gentleman asks to see Leduc. M. Joubert is suffering excruciating pain in one of his fingers and he wants it amputated, even though the doctors can find nothing wrong with it. As Joubert, Eric Tyson Wertz gives the performance of the evening. Wertz looks like a cross between Boris Karloff and Joaquin Phoenix, he wears his period clothes with graceful aplomb (the excellent costume design is by the multi-talented Kara Emry), and as he grows more desperate in his attempts to get the doctor to fulfill his request, he maintains an elegant veneer even as his pain and terror are made palpable. Wertz’s commitment to the role is unnerving. The sweat streams down his face as the doctor announces he has a slight fever, and you see the pain eroding his sanity. Later, at Joubert’s house, where the source of Joubert’s madness is made manifest, Wertz handles his voluminous speeches with astonishing ease, and delivers lines like “They walk among us” and “She hovers over me” with a spooky authority. “And yet you’re clearly not an actor,” Dr. Leduc says with puzzlement as he tries to understand the source of Joubert’s anguish. Wertz clearly is an actor, and a phenomenal one at that.
As Joubert meets his denouement at play’s end, Blackwood sustains the terror with the Peddlers’ by now traditional spook show. A frightening soundscape (brilliantly assembled by sound designer Chris Paulina) rises in volume as the theatre goes to pitch black and glowing presences (by lighting designer Nicholas Torre, whose work is fine throughout, his naturalistic lighting shifting to lurid expressionism when appropriate) take form, change shape, dart and soar. The effect is unsettling and haunting.
Shocktoberfest!! 2010 isn’t a complete success, but Eric Tyson Wertz’s almost supernatural skill more than compensates for the evening’s deficiencies. He proves once again that the very best kind of special effect is a talented actor.
The Thrillpeddlers’ Shocktoberfest!! 2010: Kiss of Blood, plays through November 19 at the Hypnodrome, 575 10th St., San Francisco. At certain performances, the Brazilian Grand Guignol company, Vigor Mortis, presents its original one-act, The Forsaken Laboratory, written and directed by Paolo Biscaia Filho, which features two gifted comediennes, Rafaella Marques and Michelle Pucci, and some shockingly gruesome effects. You’ll love it. For more information, call 415-377-4202 or visit http://thrillpeddlers.com.