The Terror and Titillation of the Thrillpeddlers

Inside the mad genius of San Francisco's Grand Guignol theater troupe.

David Bicha in Thrillpeddlers production of Shocktoberfest 17: Pyramid of Freaks. (Photo by www.davidallenstudio.com)

After another night of heavy boozing, Miley Judson decides to see Dr. Eugene Maddox, a sinister physician who promises to cure him of alcoholism. But the presence of a monstrous worm, floating in an apothecary jar, suggests that the doctor’s methods are hardly board-certified.

Desperate, Judson ingests the larva, called a Hellgrammite, which grows and grows in his belly, absorbing alcohol and preventing him from ever experiencing intoxication again.

But its thirst may be insatiable.

This gruesome morality play, set in temperance-era San Francisco, is part of the Thrillpeddlers’ Shocktoberfest 17: Pyramid of Freaks, a suite of four short plays that opens with “The Hellgrammite Method,” whose unusual title comes from the name of the Dobsonfly’s larva, an arthropod the size of a human hand that resembles a spinal column with legs and jaws.

Like The Simpsons‘ long-running “Treehouse of Horror” episodes, the show is part of an annual, comically spooky October rite. Shocktoberfest, which opened earlier this month in SoMa’s small Hypnodrome theater, is the fall production from the San Francisco theater company known as the Thrillpeddlers. A cluster of four one-acts that balances out the troupe’s theatrical calendar with the one or two other plays they stage throughout the year, Shocktoberfest embodies their love of garishness and highbrow schlock. A typical Thrillpeddlers show might involve a werewolf lapping semen off someone’s face, a meal consisting of a human foot, a corseted madam baring her buxom decolletage to a hairy man in pasties, and at least one ghoulish, onstage death.

The staging is minimal, the props are homemade, and the costumes are bawdy. (An anthropomorphized pig character in Shocktoberfest 17 has a curly penis instead of just a curly tail.) The horror, while real, is of the campy variety — think of Vincent Price’s cult classic The Tingler, an absurd ’50s chiller about a creature that lives in people’s vertebrae and scares them to death.

But the company’s let’s-put-on-a-show ethos belies the fact that they are keepers of a flame that, like the Mission Blue butterfly, is endemic to San Francisco and found almost nowhere else.

 

VICE SQUAD

However silly and ridiculous, this ethos is steeped in the long-running traditions of the Grand Guignol, an over-the-top aesthetic that combines wordplay and raunchy jokes with references to turn-of-the-last-century Paris. As a theatrical term, “Grand Guignol” has been applied loosely to everything from disposable and long-forgotten, pre-World War I plays about ax murders to Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? Thrillpeddlers producing director Russell Blackwood, however, has a very specific definition.

“As a genre, it’s about one-act plays that alternate between terror and titillation,” he says. “One of the hallmarks of the Grand Guignol is something called the Scottish shower. If you’re seeing four to six plays on the bill, they would alternate them with the ‘cold shower plays,’ which were terror or drama, and ‘hot shower plays’ like comedies and sex farces. Laughter and tears, and laughter and fears — not just the over-the-top bloodletting that the adjective ‘Grand Guignol’ has come to mean.”

Beyond that lineage, the Thrillpeddlers are also the spiritual descendants of the Cockettes. Born out of Summer of Love-era S.F., that theatrical troupe was a sensation, combining outrageous costumes and an amateur spirit to detonate social mores surrounding gender — but also to dearly held theatrical orthodoxy.

Divine, the drag queen and muse to John Waters, was a Cockette, as was Sylvester, the Black diva who later became a defining personality of the disco era. Prior to the troupe’s creation, founding member Hibiscus was the turtleneck-clad hippie famously photographed placing a flower into the barrel of a rifle on the National Mall during an anti-Vietnam protest in 1967.

In short, they sprang up from the intersection of Flower Power and the still-nascent gay liberation, and lasted only a few years. Although they mostly performed at the long-gone Palace Theater in North Beach, the Cockettes’ improvisational nature was of a piece with the zeitgeist of the late-’60s Haight, and they famously “bombed” during their debut in New York. (Some might say the starchy Manhattanite theatergoers reacted like the horrified students at the Enchantment Under the Sea dance in Back to the Future when Marty McFly rips into heavy metal during “Johnny B. Goode.” They just weren’t ready for that yet.)

The Thrillpeddlers stage two or three productions a year, frequently revivals of Cockettes material like Vice Palace — a marriage of sorts between Federico Fellini’s Juliet of the Spirits and Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Masque of the Red Death” — but also original work like Club Inferno, a glam-rock musical based on the hellish section of The Divine Comedy, which they revived this year. Their motto, “Sissies Stay Home,” refers to the squeamish and the prudish, but you wouldn’t find a more welcoming house for sissies and other deviants — even in San Francisco.

This is musical theater for musical theater nerds, people equipped to get abstruse references to 1920s Paris and — in theory — able to differentiate between racist jokes and the ridiculing of the long history of racist tropes onstage. The more you know about Weimar Germany, Busby Berkeley, Maria Montez as the Cobra Woman, Aristophanes’ Lysistrata, Josephine Baker’s banana skirts, and the Italian tenor Enrico Caruso’s possibly apocryphal residency at an opera house in the Amazon, the better. While the Thrillpeddlers would seem to lean hard on prior work, it’s not necessarily unoriginal — the estate of the German composer Kurt Weill, for instance, refused to let the company use his music, so they had to write original songs. And apart from a smattering of companies staging the occasional revival of Cockettes plays like Pearls Over Shanghai — for which Blackwood won a Theater Bay Area Award for Outstanding Direction — and Orgy in the Lighthouse, there’s almost no one in the United States taking on this material.

 

HELEN MIRREN AND SYLVESTER

Because every show relies on an ensemble cast, auditions are not for any one particular part. So the group has coalesced into a tight bond. William Selby, a graphic designer who has illustrated many of the Thrillpeddlers’ posters, rewrote a Twilight Zone episode from the 1980s into “The Hellgrammite Method.” Not an actor himself, Selby calls himself an honorary Thrillpeddler.

“The quality of the performances and actors and the commitment is just great,” he says. “They’re versatile. You’ll see the guy who played the alcoholic playing other roles. I don’t know how they do it, but I’m glad they do.”

Shocktoberfest came alive when we started to incorporate live music,” Selby adds. “My personal favorite is the blackout with the ectoplasm. It can really scare people.”

Live music owes its incorporation to Scrumbly Koldewyn, an original Cockette who went on to do all manner of theater after the troupe disbanded in the early 1970s. A lyricist, composer, and musician, he took advantage of the attention that followed the 2003 documentary The Cockettes and connected with Blackwood to revive the company’s oeuvre, writing music for about 10 original shows since.

“I’m so glad to be back home with [the] edgy and weird,” he says. “Because I’m a freak, and I love that. I think that everybody is, but I know it. Most people are trying to deny their freakiness.”

But the Thrillpeddlers aren’t just Cockettes 2.0. For one thing, four decades of work have broadened Koldewyn’s theatrical and musical reach.

“We were just such amateurs feeling our way through it,” he says of the Cockettes. It’s a word I’m reluctant to use too freely for fear of giving offense, but it’s undeniable that the Thrillpeddlers resist professionalization in several key ways, and by design.

“It’s enough so that it allows creativity and celebrates somebody that might have been overlooked in mainstream theater,” Koldewyn adds.

A self-described “drunk-folk band,” Vagabondage is the house band for Shocktoberfest, playing while the audience gets settled and providing the score during the plays. Their position embodies the tension between amateur and professional, as Koldewyn writes only the “main lines” and leaves them room for their own creativity, which must adhere to the rigors of the stage.

“There’s an entire cast of people singing that’s not you,” fiddle player Sean Malroy says. “They can’t shift. They’re relying on us to lay the groundwork for everything they’re performing on top of. You want to show up for them.”

“The parts we’ve interpreted we’ve definitely done with you in the room,” accordion player and vocalist Emchy says, referring to Koldewyn. “Are we Vagabondage-ing it in a way that is OK for your baby? We want to do right by Scrumbly.”

The result, Emchy adds, pointing wryly to a tattoo on her shoulder that reads “POET,” is “playfully dark and sexily political and very, very queer.”

“Shock value is extremely important,” Koldewyn adds. “The comedy is played with some underlying substance, little bits of philosophy and insight.”

It’s all possible in San Francisco because of its position as a secondary city with respect to stage and screen.

“This town is very good at having semi-professionals,” Vagabondage’s Malroy says.

Emchy calls it “the beauty of chaos.”

“If there’s room for people to try things out, magic can happen,” she says, citing piano bars frequented by Broadway types who get agitated if a drunk patron misses a single note. “If you’re super-regimented, it’s very rare.”

The night of the infamous Cockettes fiasco caused a rupture along similar lines. Embarrassed, the future disco diva Sylvester put out a disclaimer to avoid absorbing any further blame, Koldewyn says.

“It was weird, and I didn’t really forgive him. He was part of the force in the Cockettes that was trying to get some tighter productions.”

But the approach prepares actors to thwart disaster.

“We did a show called Gone With the Showboat to Oklahoma,” Koldewyn says. “Somebody threw an empty soda can onstage, and you could hear the audience go ‘huhhhh,’ because we were new and not everyone was into pretty boys in drag prancing around. I reached down and pretended to take a huge swig out of it. I love stuff like that.”

Had he infinite resources, Koldewyn wouldn’t change much. “I’d love to take these people and put a few really big people like Helen Mirren and Johnny Depp into some of these shows.”

But it would risk diluting the very things that make Thrillpeddlers productions what they are.

“I would hate for it to lose the immediacy, and the fact that oftentimes you have half as many people onstage as there are in the audience,” he adds. “I’ve thought about what it would be like in bigger places. We’d have to design and build the place.”

 

‘THE OPERA IS VERY STUFFY’

Born into a theater family in Kansas City, Mo., Russell Blackwood, the producing director, worked with the San Francisco Shakespeare Festival “before the Hypnodrome came into my life” in 2004. (An earlier iteration of the Thrillpeddlers known as Belle-Nouveau Productions performed in New York and Boston prior to that, but did not include Cockettes or Cockettes-inspired work.)

Although the Thrillpeddlers only stage a few plays per year, the theater is seldom dark. Rehearsals happen on-site and can take weeks, and Blackwood runs a Creepshow Camp in the summer for kids to learn the art of making bags of fake blood.

As the troupe owns the Hypnodrome and the cast and crew wear multiple hats, overhead is relatively low. It’s also no one’s primary source of income: The stipend is about $10 per actor per performance. It’s a hustle, and at least one Thrillpeddler performs by night and wakes up early to earn his living as a barista at Peet’s.

David Bicha, who works in corporate communications for Charles Schwab, made his Thrillpeddlers debut in 2015’s revival of Club Inferno. His co-workers are “loyal fans” who live vicariously through his onstage antics. He died onstage twice each night in last year’s Shocktoberfest, discovering an “affinity for getting really bloody,” and also acted in a role that called for kissing his teenage daughter and impregnating her offstage.

“She was played by Birdie-Bob Watt, a man in his 50s, so I’m not sure which is stranger,” Bicha says.

A thespian since middle school, he knew Blackwood and Koldewyn from the theater world, and the possibility of being depraved and villainous lured him in.

“I’d never had the opportunity to do extreme violence or sexuality, but I was always curious about it,” Bicha says. “I feel grateful for the opportunity Russell put before me at age 50, to get the chance to feel sexy onstage. Whatever your opinion about it, you kind of have to go there when you’re doing it, and it’s been liberating that way.”

While she doesn’t fully expose herself, Zelda Koznofski relishes the opportunity to have uninhibited fun onstage. Beginning with Vice Palace in 2011, she’s performed in five Thrillpeddlers shows.

“I’ve gone pretty far suggestively, but I’ve never shown my tits,” she says, noting that her refusal has become a good-hearted joke among her friends in the cast. “I love it and it pushes boundaries. You can kind of tell, watching the show from the stage, who loved it and who’s not into it.”

Blackwood is a “very generous director,” she adds. “The environment of support is a really great place to flourish and get parts you wouldn’t normally have thought you could do. I learned a lot about what I was capable of there.”

Even when you retire from show business, you never stop being a Thrillpeddler, says J Sykes Iness, who appeared in several shows during 2015, including Shocktoberfest 16: Curse of the Cobra, in which he played (among other things) a patron at the ill-fated Donner Party Diner. Formerly a singer in the San Francisco Opera, he opted to ditch that comparatively higher-profile gig to prance about the stage of the Hypnodrome as a “giant hairy man in panties and high heels with pasties on.”

“The opera is very stuffy,” he says. “They love queer people, but you have to put a lid on it when you perform with them. Everyone’s a snob if you weren’t trained the right way, and they hated that confidence in me.”

Playing Justin, Eddie Monsoon’s gay ex-husband in a drag version of Absolutely Fabulous at Oasis caught Blackwood’s attention, and Iness’ first role was as Quasihomo, a gay hunchback enjoying a forbidden tryst with his lesbian best friend, Lesmerelda (played by the S.F. stage veteran Leigh Crow). He’s hurled himself against the concrete floor to maximize the melodrama quotient in his own deaths. Once, he licked a little too much “semen” (which was actually soap) off a cast-mate’s face and had to swallow it in order to say his next line, which caused him to run into the bushes and dry-heave. It’s cuckoo bananas, but the serious side is what cemented the professional relationship and turned it into a personal one.

“By the end of The Untamed Stage, I was just sobbing because it really reflected the political climate of how people view people who are different,” Iness says. They’re singing about ‘how we’re different, and you’re not going to make us go away,’ and at the end, everyone’s gunned down in machine-gun fire in the darkness. These people are my friends now, and they are the queer artists of the world. They were queer artists playing queer artists, and when I was watching them get gunned down, it was like, ‘This could really happen, and these are the people it would happen to.’ It was so real.”

And then it did happen. After the shooting at the Orlando nightclub Pulse in June of this year, a number of Thrillpeddlers gathered together for a ritual.

“Eighty percent of the Thrillpeddlers are pagan,” Iness says. “We have a phone tree anytime we need something. When Orlando happened, we stood on a hill in Duboce Park and passed a bottle of wine around and formed a power circle and stated what we were feeling and made magic happen. It’s the neatest thing I have ever done, and even though I’m not performing anymore, once a Thrillpeddler, always a Thrillpeddler.”

 

RACE MATTERS

I have seen fully naked male Thrillpeddlers engaged in, for all intents and purposes, anal intercourse onstage. Even by San Francisco mores, that can be shocking. (If you’re not clutching your proverbial pearls, you might be left slack-jawed, wondering how they get away with this.) But nudity under lights isn’t what makes the individual repertory players occasionally uncomfortable. Racial matters are.

From yellowface to faux-tiki exoticism to the character of Othello, the theater has long been a place where racist tropes get inscribed into the collective consciousness. And it’s deeply embedded in the canon: Try sitting through Caucasian actresses perform “Three Little Maids from School Are We” from Gilbert and Sullivan’s The Mikado without shifting a little.

The Thrillpeddlers aren’t averse to “lampooning race relations,” as Iness puts it. Depending on context and one’s own perspective, this can mean holding up stereotypes in order to smash them — or it can mean embracing crude racist jokes in the service of what they see as their larger message.

In 2015’s Shocktoberfest, for example, there was a fair amount of “made-up Polynesian jargon,” Iness says.

“I believe some of it was actual Tongan,” he says. “Scrumbly did try. It’s all absurd, but at times, we’re like, ‘I don’t know if I could do this.’ ”

Consulting the veteran Thrillpeddler Steven Satyricon, he gradually became at ease with the material, concluding that the perspective that theater puts on such things is unique.

“When you’re demonstrating to people how absurd it is, you have to take on those traits,” he says.

Or, as Koldewyn says, “We don’t do straight musical theater. It’s all a parody of musical theater.”

And in any case, Blackwood’s theatrical erudition is forceful.

“Russell’s a real artist,” Iness says. “The funniest thing is that when I came into the Thrillpeddlers, I thought it was just going to be a bunch of nonsense thrown together. But Russell is so studied and smart that there’s all this dramaturgy. If I’m building a building out of poop, Russell is telling me why I’m building a building out of poop, what the motivation is, and what I want the audience to feel.”

 

LE FIN

Corpses pile up as opening night goes well. The Hellgrammite worm grows and grows. Alligator Boy beats Freako at a game of poker. Tozzini the Strong Man wows the townspeople with his feats of strength (and red-and-white striped carny onesie). Madame Banga breast-feeds her dog children. Pa Sunflower has his way with the shirtless farmhand (who later has a date with the shredder). And the Cock-Demon Sitri rides the Demon Train to Sodom to get his just reward. The dressing room is full of jibber-jabber as naked actors run around putting on wigs.

At the after-party, cast members crack open beers in spite of having just staged a play about a parasite that feasts on alcohol, causing its victim to writhe in agony. There’s a chocolate sheet cake, but whoever was tasked with writing a message in icing lost something in translation, as it reads “Shock To Be RFEST” in cursive. But I get to stick my neck in the guillotine. It’s scary, although not because the basket with a head in it fills me with fear of actual decapitation; the pressure of the falling blade hitting the chin guard seems like it could fracture my jaw. It doesn’t. I stand up, head intact, and someone hands me another drink.

“It’s this bizarre alternate universe,” Iness says. “That’s why people do theater.”

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