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A Bloody Good Show

April 16, 2008

As the home of Incredibly Strange Wrestling and the Faux Drag Queen Pageant, San Francisco is a natural breeding ground for the estoric genre of Grand Guignol theatre. Thrillpeddlers, the city's very own permanant company devoted to recreating the works of the now long-defunct Parisian Grand Guignol theatre (and its much shorter-lived sister, the London Grand Guignol theatre) as well as staging new, original plays written in the Grand Guignol style, should become a regular stop on the San Francisco trail for locals and visitors looking to sample something of the city's more lurid side.

Located under a flyover in the concrete jungle of San Francisco's seedy/arts South of Market district, Thrillpeddlers' performance space, The Hypnodrome, is a wonder in and of itself. The paint-spattered backdrops look like something vomitted from the intenstines of a wolverine. A custom-built replica of a guillotine (recreated from plans found on the Internet of Swedish origins) lurks in a corner -- and usually finds its way onto the stage at one point or another during an evening's entertainment. An old automatic player piano covers up the sound of traffic driving by outside. The auditorium is snug enough to enable stage blood to hit you if you're sitting in the front row. The back of the seating area is occupied by a row of eccentrically-decorated private nooks called "Shock Boxes" in which couples can have a little privacy should they desire it. The end of each show is marked by a complete shutting off of all the lights in the house. Audiences hold on to their drinks and shriek with fear and/or delight as florescent skeletons, ghouls and other creatures of the night dance around and mercilessly taunt innocent bystanders. If you're sitting in a Shock Box, prepare for a shock.

Though the melodramatic plots of the Grand Guignol genre are often condemned for seeming predictable, a night at Thrillpeddlers is usually anything but run of the mill. Even when the work makes you want to dig yourself an early grave (as was the case with the company's fabulously terrible production of Titus Andronicus a couple of years ago) the schlocktastic antics still manage to hit you with the unexpected. One emerges from a Thrillpeddlers show with the feeling that it isn't what happens on stage that matters -- but rather how the company hurtles towards each blood-splattered climax.

And I should point out that it's not all about guts and gore. A night of Grand Guignol theatre is based around giving the audience a range of radically contrasting experiences. In a typical program, gory dramas are mixed with side-splitting comedies. The idea is to create an emotional ping-pong effect in the viewer as we move from rolling in the aisles to feeling the hairs stand up on the back of our necks. Thrillpeddlers certainly achieves this effect with its latest production: Flaming Sin: London's Grand Guignol. A witty, louche one-act written for the London Grand Guignol in 1922 by Noel Coward, "The Better Half" (receiving its American premiere by Thrillpeddlers) is followed by "The Old Women", an over-the-top horror play set in a lunatic asylum adapted by Christopher Holland from the French Grand Guignol drama "A Crime in the Madhouse" by Andre de Lorde and Alfred Binet. Then, the show moves into a fast-paced revue featuring a variety of underground sideshows, from a play set in a department store and revolving around the aforementioned guillotine to a burlesque song entitled "Oom Pah Pah" raucously sung in a crimson gown and lavishly-curled wig by one of the most beautiful and graceful drag queens I've ever seen. The evening ends with a screening of Thrillpeddlers' 20-minute documentary about the Grand Guignol stage, which you don't have to go to The Hypnodrome to see: It's a "special feature" on the Tim Burton/Johnny Depp Sweeney Todd DVD.

By the time I staggered out of The Hypnodrome at around 11.30 the other night, I felt emotionally exhausted and spiritually uplifted. It was one of the stranger evenings I've spent at the theatre. I don't think I'll forget it in a hurry. As Richard Hand and Michael Wilson, the authors of a recently published book entitled London's Grand Guignol put it, "Grand Guignol is, in any case, essentially a form that embodies a mass of contradictions. It is comic and horrific, progressive and reactionary, realist and sensationalist, erotic and even pornographic. It is all these things and more besides."

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