Shocktoberfest!!! 2010: Kiss of Blood
The subject of violence on television was once a growth industry, with studies, councils essays, panels, organizations, foundations, and congressional hearings producing reams of paper and stacks of statistics.
"The average child who watches two hours of cartoons a day may see nearly 10,000 violent incidents each year," concluded one study funded by the Kaiser Family Foundation. Teens and adults were also being studied for anti-social behavior incurred by prime-time bullets being shown leaving a gun and entering a body.
A lot of the indignation arose when we had but three networks projecting their broadcast signals into every home. Now we have hundreds of stations, many that you have to pay for, and if folks are taking to the streets because the hero of Dexter is a gleeful serial killer or because the head cop in The Shield liked to beat up suspects, I haven't heard about it.
This roundabout has been leading to the phenomenon of Grand Guignol theater, and how obviously fake blood and violence can elicit stronger reactions in a live setting than much more realistic bloodshed can on a screen. At the opening-night performance of Thrillpeddlers' Shocktoberfest!!! 2010, a studly-enough theatergoer blurted out, "Oh, shit. Gnarly," when a character chopped off an obviously fake stand-in for his hand.
The most famous purveyor of the blood-and-horror theater was Le Theatre du Grand Guignol, which operated in Paris from 1894 to 1962. It's definitely a niche market, but it endures thanks to tenacious proponents such as the Thrillpeddlers group that will soon celebrate its 20th anniversary. Is its appeal akin to a theme-park thrill-ride that we know will safely give us the sense of a near-death experience? Does it tap into latent sado-masochistic urges? Maybe it's just juvenile fun to see lots of messy stuff, like fake blood, get squirted all about.
Thrillpeddlers has strayed a bit from its plasma-phantasmagorias with the runaway success of Pearls Over Shanghai. The annual Shocktober programming has been integrated into a rotating repertory with the revival of the old Cockettes show. The trio of short plays making up the current Shock roster includes something new, something old, and something refurbished.
By far, the best of the lot is the something old. Kiss of Blood (Le Baiser du Sang) was presented in 1929 in Paris by the original Grand Guignol theater, and it proves a much sturdier work than the two plays that precede it. Its Grand Guignol-ness drips with authenticity.
Translated by Daniel Zilber, it layers horror upon horror. The opening scene takes place during a messily unsuccessful brain surgery, which is closely followed by a seeming madman invading the operating room demanding that his right index finger be amputated. When the doctor can see nothing wrong with the digit, the intruder begins the de-fingering himself. A third scene puts his hysteria into context with still more horrific happenings.
As the crazed patient, Eric Tyson Wertz provides the best performance of the production by managing to take realism to the edge of absurdity, and negotiating that tightrope with finesse. Flynn DeMarco projects a kind of silent-movie melodrama as the surgeon, and he and most of the cast members play multiple characters throughout the evening.
The opening play, Lips of the Damned, was inspired by one of the Paris troupe's plays centered around a guillotine. James Toczyl has an appropriately wax-museum persona as the curator of an exhibition of torture devices, which thrills an upper-class matron (Kara Emry) who suggests that she and her secret lover (Daniel Baken) smooch after she ties him up and has him stick his head into the guillotine stocks. Her husband (DeMarco) bursts onto the scene, and straps a harness over his wife's head that includes a studded gag that draws blood from her mouth. Rob Keefe's script isn't very scary nor is it much fun, except, perhaps, as an icky S&M fantasy.
Fun is the main intention of Keefe's second piece, which must wait for a cheery but unnecessary song about the benefits of gagging your wife in a "scold bridle." The Empress of Colma stars Thrillpeddlers' leader Russell Blackwood, who directed all three plays, as the reigning drag queen of a tatty social organization. Blackwood can be quite jolly as the imperious Crystal, and Birdie-Bob Watt is a ditsy delight as the unfortunately intelligence-challenged Sunny. Wertz, so good in the final play, is first seen here in an entirely different persona: the bitter first runner-up in the empress competition. Keefe gets off several good laughs in his drag-ball satire, though its swerve into Grand Guignol horror seems more dictated by the theme of the evening than the characters themselves.
If you do head down to the Hypnodrome for this year's Shocktoberfest, be sure to stick around after the intermission if any inklings of cutting the evening short arise. Kiss of Blood, the final piece, will give you a good idea of what Grand Guignol is really all about.
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Shocktoberfest!!! 2010: Kiss of Blood will run at the Hypnodrome through Nov. 19. Tickets are $25-$35. Call (800) 838-3006 or go to www.thrillpeddlers.com.