The most enticing aspect of FLAMING SIN — and Grand Guignol theater in general — is the way, if done well, it messes with our emotions. If The Old Women makes for a chilling chaser to Coward's warm comedy, the head-spinning array of bite-sized plays and demented cabaret acts that follows the two main acts further douses us with showers of hot and cold water. Most memorable among these the night I attended the show were: a dark comedy by Rob Keefe titled First Day in which the aforementioned house guillotine makes its standard appearance; a ribald drinking song lustily performed by gorgeous drag queen Valentine; a toe-curling scenario in which the bare ass of performer Eric Tyson Wertz (who could be a disciple of Antonin Artaud, a member of a sadomasochistic sect, or both) is treated to a five-minute walloping by a hairbrush-wielding woman in a bear costume; and an ex-cop's real-life account of the satanic curse that a dying drug addict placed on the building in which the theater is now housed. Anyone left standing at 11 p.m. is welcome to stay on for a screening of Thrillpeddlers' fascinating 20-minute Grand Guignol documentary, a "Special Feature" on the Tim Burton Sweeney Todd DVD.

Hunchback (Eric Tyson Wertz) and the Normandy Woman (The Indra) in The Old Women.
Hunchback (Eric Tyson Wertz) and the Normandy Woman (The Indra) in The Old Women.

"It is not necessarily what will happen but how we get there that matters," write Richard J. Hand and Michael Wilson (italics theirs) in their new book, London's Grand Guignol. The plots may be predictable, the blood ketchuplike, and the dancing skeletons kitschy. Yet the journey the Thrillpeddlers take us on when they're at the top of their game is as titillating as it is formulaic. World War I is long gone, but in a society equally upset by conflict and crime, the tidily packaged faux carnage of the Grand Guignol theater offers sweet relief. It allows us to vent our primal impulses in the relative safety of the theater.

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