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Good Stage Gore

May 20, 2008

In general, the theatre doesn't do blood well. It's somehow pretty hard for live audiences to suspend their disbelief at the sight of a guy sticking a retractable plastic knife or blunt-tipped sword into the gap between an adversary's left side and his arm and watching a load of radioactive-looking ketchup spurt out from the fake wound. The cinema does gore so much more believably.

That's why the most engrossing plays and compelling productions so often use language to describe bloody scenes of violence and death or use sound and or/visuals in an artful way to convey grizzly actions. The Greeks understood this and kept fratricide, matricide and all other kinds of -cide in the wings, leaving the horror to our imaginations.

Every now and again, though, I come across a theatre production which manages to cause the bile to rise in our throats by finding a way to make gore work on stage. But even when these effects succeed, more often than not, they make us laugh as much as they shock us. This is frequently the case with the sheep's eyeballs and severed rubber heads used by San Francisco's grand guignol company, Thrillpeddlers.

At the weekend, however, I caught a production of Tracy Letts' Bug at San Francisco Playhouse which not only managed to put blood center stage, but also made it truly stomach-churning.

The drama pretty much reads like a knock off of every classic thriller in the movie cannon from The Fly to Psycho. The play tells the story of Agnes, a down-and-out junkie alcaholic who takes in a tortured young man Peter, who says he's on the run from the military. The two of them spend their days holed up in a seedy midwestern motel room. In between trying to keep Agnes' abusive ex-husband at bay, the two of them develop a crazy phobia about tiny insects invading their bodies.

When Gabriel Marin as Peter suddenly takes off his shirt to reveal a chest lacerated with wounds like he's some kind of latterday St Sebastian, responses from the audience range from sharp intakes of breath to uncomfortable laughter to cries. It's quite an effect. Marin's completely off-kielter (without going over the top) behavior makes us believe that he's suffering from some terrible inner torment. The wounds are a manifestation of the turmoil he's experiencing inside. It's truly frightening.

It's so rare to see blood done well on stage. Now at least I know it's not impossible. This clever marriage of taut writing, compelling stage makeup and brilliant acting may is very hard to achieve though. As the saying goes, kids: don't try this at home.


  • Did you see Letts' August: Osage County when you were in NY? It was dark when I was there. Best stage blood I've seen was Lieutenant of Inishmore, esp when Alison Pill shot him and got sprayed with so much blood there was a silhouette on the wall behind her. They seemed to be asking how far they could go without losing the audience and the answer seemed to be as far as they wanted, implying our world is more grotesquely, absurdly cruel and violent than anything you can devise on stage.

    By Blogger Tom, At May 24, 2008 at 12:03 PM  

  • August doesn't have any stage blood. But it was one of the more emotionally brutal shows I've seen in a while. Oh, and funny as hell.

    I just saw a play in Chicago, "Sweet Confinement" (written by newcomer Anna Carini), staged in a pristine all-white bathroom set. There was a blackout in the very beginning, and then the lights come on to reveal what appears to be several gallons of stage blood spilled on the floor and the walls. It was a shocker of an opener, but it somehow managed not to distract from the story, which was about a group of friends helping a woman clean up after her estranged husband's suicide attempt (the source of the blood). I think it worked for me because it told us right off that we were dealing with a very fraught and messy and difficult situation. It was a bold choice, but it didn't end up feeling like a gratuitous one.


    By Anonymous Anonymous, At May 26, 2008 at 9:52 AM  

  • Both the example of McDonagh's play and "Sweet Confinement" suggest that blood can be used to great effect. It's tricky to do well, though.

    By Blogger Chloe Veltman, At May 26, 2008 at 10:49 AM  

  • Thanks for the comment about August, anon. I knew it didn't have stage blood. It's a terrific script and I was hoping to hear what Chloe thought of it in comparison to Bug but I guess she missed it too. Yeah, stage blood is hard to do well if you're going for realism but I usually enjoy whatever solution a production comes up with. If you don't have the budget to really do it well, like Lieutenant, it seems better to theatricalize it - like the red cloth drawn with a string that foolsFury used at the beginning of Monster in the Dark.

    By Blogger Tom, At May 26, 2008 at 12:18 PM  

  • Hey Tom
    I meant to say that weirdly enough I too was in New York the week that August was inbetween theatres and missed it in Chicago by a heair's breadth, so didn't get to see it, though I've read the script and many reviews about it.
    thanks for weighing in.

    By Blogger Chloe Veltman, At May 26, 2008 at 12:24 PM  

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