There are certain things a theatergoer can pretty much depend upon when visiting the Hypnodrome, the home of Thrillpeddlers — one of the few companies in the world (if not the only one) dedicated to presenting plays from the Grand Guignol repertoire. These include the use, at some point during the show, of a replica guillotine; a finale involving actors dancing about in the dark in fluorescent skeleton costumes; and lashings of fake blood. Furthermore, most Grand Guignol dramas follow a similar trajectory toward a gory climax. Watch the first five minutes of a play by André de Lorde (Grand Guignol's "Prince of Terror") and you pretty much know what's going to happen in the end. In general, the art world shuns predictability. "Success is dangerous," Pablo Picasso once said. "One begins to copy oneself, and to copy oneself is more dangerous than to copy others. It leads to sterility." Yet for some strange reason, the formulaic seems to be one of the Grand Guignol theater's greatest strengths.
With its roots in fin de siècle Paris, the Grand Guignol theater flourished in France (and briefly in England) during the early years of the 20th century. According to scholar Mel Gordon, guidebooks from the 1920s listed the Théâtre du Grand Guignol in the Rue Chaptal as being among the top few attractions in Paris alongside the Eiffel Tower, the Louvre, and legalized brothels. One of the main reasons patrons flocked to the Rue Chaptal was the theater's winning formula: Interspersing breezy, one-act comedies with tautly spun melodramas dealing with such depravities as rape, murder, insanity, torture, and other sordid subjects ripped from the tabloid headlines, a typical night at the Grand Guignol took the audience on an emotional rollercoaster. The blend of over-the-top bloodletting and comedic relief within a predictable format provided a much-needed cathartic outlet for theatergoers dealing with the real-life horrors of World War I and its aftermath.
It's hard to imagine that Grand Guignol would have much to offer to today's audiences. Beyond the fact that theater is no longer the form of mass entertainment that it once was, people looking for thrills and spills are much more likely to turn to movies and videogames these days, with their superior ability to make grisly scenes of carnage seem disturbingly lifelike. Even the most gruesome modern stage works, such as Sarah Kane's Cleansed and Martin McDonagh's The Cripple of Inishmaan, don't come close, shock-value-wise, to films like No Country for Old Men and The Last King of Scotland. And that's to say nothing of the Saw movies.
Yet as formulaic and tame as Grand Guignol programs seem by today's standards, a trip to the Hypnodrome to experience Thrillpeddlers' latest — and perhaps greatest — foray into the genre, FLAMING SIN: London's Grand Guignol, will fricassee your emotions and play tricks with your mind. This is particularly significant considering the fact that London's Grand Guignol enterprise, which existed for only two years from 1920 to 1922, was, owing to genteel English sensibilities and draconian censorship laws, much less bloodthirsty and risqué than its French counterpart. Blending compact writing, fast-paced direction, and nuanced performances, Thrillpeddlers' salacious evening of out-there entertainment does nothing if not dispel the common belief that Grand Guignol theater is an outmoded form, of marginal interest to anyone but horror history enthusiasts and academics. To borrow Dr. Frankenstein's famous assertion: "It's alive."
The first of the evening's offerings, a recently rediscovered one-act by Noel Coward titled The Better Half that is making its American premiere, barely gets a mention in biographies about the playwright. By all accounts, Coward, who was in his early 20s when he wrote it in 1922, was embarrassed by the work. Yet it's piquantly funny and socially astute. Set in the dressing room of Alice, an unhappily married high society woman, the narrative deals with the lady's extreme attempts to force her superficially dashing and upright husband, David, to get in touch with his dark side. Thanks to the playwright's seamless blend of the urbane and the dangerous; Eddie Muller's tight, perfectly paced direction; and nuanced performances by Alice Louise and Jonathan Ingbretson in the psychologically challenging roles of Alice and David, The Better Half is anything but a lightweight domestic farce. Though delightfully old-fashioned (characters refer to each other using terms like "old dear," "good sort," and "damned cad"), the work also feels quite contemporary for its unconventional views on marital relationships. No blood gets spilled onstage, but intermittent allusions to a sensational news story about a man who beats up his wife for being unfaithful hints at the violent impulses at work at the heart of the play.
Next on the bill, The Old Women by Christopher Holland (adapted from the seminal French Grand Guignol play by de Lorde and Alfred Binet, Crime dans une Maison de Fous ou Les Infernales), provides a macabre contrast to Coward's comedy. Unraveling in the sepulchral shadows of a lunatic asylum run by ascetic nuns and skeptical medics, the play concerns an innocent young inmate's ghastly fate at the hands of three delusional old crones. Director Russell Blackwood doesn't skimp on the Hammer Horror aesthetic in his take on this classic. With their lumpy bosoms, frazzled wigs, and warped faces, the titular hags (played by Eric Tyson Wertz, James Toczyl, and The Indra) are truly creepy. Margery Fairchild, meanwhile, makes for the perfect ingénue with her sweetness and wide-eyed fear. From the lonely glimmer of a stove burning in the darkness to the jangle of a nun's keys, Chris Paulina's powerful sound and lighting effects help to heighten the drama's slow-simmering build toward its inevitable conclusion. The gory climax doesn't come as a surprise, yet it's still yucky.
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.
"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.