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Pure Shock Value

March 24, 2009

Doing blood and guts on stage convincingly is extremely difficult. There are basically two ways you can go with it: Realistic and Anti-Realistic.

Anti-realism is a common choice among theatre companies. Theatre is not a naturalistic medium, so the thicker and more radioactive-colored the fake blood looks and the more hammy or overwrought the death scene, the better. In San Francisco, the local grand guignol theatre company Thrillpeddlers, does this variety of blood-letting extremely well, often eliciting laughs, jeers and the occasional convulsion of disgust for their efforts.

Many companies eschew doing blood realistically because it's so hard to do. But in recent months, I've seen several examples on Bay Area stages that have impressed me a great deal and had a much more visceral impact on me than I've ever experienced in a live performance. SF Playhouse's production of Tracy Letts' Bug, Mark Jackson's production of Shakespeare's Macbeth under the auspices of Shotgun Players, and, most recently, Killing My Lobster's production of Matt Pelfrey's Pure Shock Value all delivered pure shock value.

I think the result must be due to a combination of very careful blocking, an in-depth study of cinematic techniques cleverly honed for live performance and good quality fake blood.

In Killing My Lobster's production, which closed over the weekend at The Exit Theatre following a critically-acclaimed run, the splattered brains against a wall at one point resembled a scene from a Quentin Tarantino film, which makes perfect sense because the play draws thematic inspiration from -- and, to an extent, sends up -- the iconic movie director.

It's interesting to note that in all three cases mentioned above, the theatres were small. I don't think any house in which these shows took place seats more than 200 people. The directors and actors, not to mention the design, fight director, stage management and props people, all deserve huge amounts of credit for pulling off the horror at such close quarters. The effect is almost breath-taking. And it's puzzling too. For the result isn't naturalistic at all, even though it's very realistic. Even when done absolutely convincingly, the gore feels completely different from watching similar bloodshed on screen. It sort of bored right into you in a way that cinematic horror fails to. We've become anesthetized to this sort of thing in the movies because it's so run of the mill. But on stage, serious bloodletting manages to make the blood in our veins run simultaneously hot and cold.


  • So, is stage blood a recurrent dream, er, theme with you? We had a conversation on this topic last year. Lieutenant of Inishmore on Broadway remains the best use of stage blood I've seen. The very pregnant wife returning to the cabin covered in the blood of the man who tried to kill her husband in Rogue Machine's "Razorback" (LA) was a primal moment - pure mother bear protecting her own - though the violence happens offstage. What's interesting is what the play is trying to say and how we react as the blood flows.

    By Blogger Tom, At March 24, 2009 at 5:25 PM  

  • I guess I'm in a bloodthirsty mood, Tom. Must be the full moon...
    thanks for your thoughts.

    By Blogger Chloe Veltman, At March 24, 2009 at 5:29 PM  

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