It’s difficult to determine exactly when old San Francisco crumbled. Some argue that it died with the Death of the Hippie ceremony in Golden Gate Park, in 1967. Others claim it was in 1987, when the Castro district was in danger of dying under the weight of the growing AIDS epidemic that had already taken over two thousand gay men. Even more may put the final nail in the coffin in 1995, at the start of the dotcom era, in which time the city would see the influx of internet companies and an increasing hegemony by the homogeneous tech industry. Or maybe it was 2008, when the city, already Silicon Valley’s bedroom community, became ground zero for tech.
Scary stuff, right? These are the moments that shocked and appalled S.F.’s old guard as they stood by helplessly, watching everything alternative and outré that they knew and loved displaced by bland artisanal coffee and bike repair shops, urban hiking gear stores, and brew-cades. But the chains of old San Francisco are rattling once again at The Hypnodrome theatre, in Soma, for Shocktoberfest 17: Pyramid of Freaks 17th Annual Extravaganza of Terror & Titillation.
The bona fide local institution returns with four short plays, paying tribute to France’s even older tradition of Le Théâtre du Grand-Guignol (1897-1962), which once showcased some of the country’s most progressive plays: some horror, some sexual farces, most of them taboo. While this particular presentation, directed by Russell Blackwood, is neither terrifying nor titillating — unless you’re just visiting for a tech or medical conference, that is — it’s funny, smart, and well played by the Thrillpeddlers, who have been at it for 25 years now.
The first two shorts are classics with twists. Richard Hand and Michael Wilson’s adaptation of Marc Bonis-Charancle’s “The Haunted House – A Classic Grand Guignol Thriller,” about five thrill-seekers breaking into a haunted house for a good scare but getting more excitement than they bargained for, is reinvigorated with campy dialogue and fun, gory effects.
William Selby’s “The Hellgrammite Method,” written and adapted for the Thrillpeddlers from the author’s own 1988 New Twilight Zone episode, about a husband, father and hopeless alcoholic (Dan Foley), who tries a dubious and potentially dangerous drinking cure, impresses with excellent performances from Foley and CJ Smith, who plays his treating physician Dr. Eugene Maddox.
Cockettes co-founder Scrumbly Koldewyn‘s brand-new musical, “Demon Train To Sodom,” about a pair of organic farmers, their horny daughter and a series of farmhands named Junior that they just can’t seem to keep alive, attempts to shock with a cock shot, some sodomy and a climactic over-the-top orgy sequence, but is most appreciated for its subtler “wink wink, nudge nudge” moments.
Rob Keefe’s new play, “Pyramid of Freaks,” which follows a dogged detective, trailing an elusive killer, who steals the hearts of carnival freak show roustabouts, feels the most relevant today as it hints at the ongoing oppression faced by anyone outside the norm just about anywhere, including the new San Francisco.
In a city where so much diversity has fallen victim to uniformity, shows like Shocktoberfest 17 remain important as a link to the City’s more raucous past. It’s less scary than Six Flags Fright Fest but a hell of a lot funnier than Boo! A Madea Halloween. And besides, what’s the point of paying such frighteningly high San Francisco rents if you don’t take part in only-in-S.F. experiences, such as this?
Shocktoberfest 17: Pyramid of Freaks, 17th Annual Extravaganza of Terror & Titillation, through Nov. 19 at The Hypnodrome, 575 Tenth St., hypnodrome.org