Theatre du Grand-Guignol: Tales of Horror and Fear
nytheatre.com review by Ed Malin
October 16, 2010
For several years at Halloween time, The Queens Players have been treating us to selected Grand-Guignol plays. Although decades old, these suspenseful and bloody short plays still have a great impact. This year's program consists of "The Final Kiss" by Maurice Level, "Tics, or Doing the Deed" by Rene Berton, "Coals of Fire" (author unknown), "The Ultimate Torture" by Andre de Lorde, and "This Old House" by Sean Demers. The last is a new piece in a grand tradition, the graphic horror stories which started at the Theatre du Grand-Guignol in Paris.
In 1897, the Theatre du Grand-Guignol opened in the ninth district of Paris. Oscar Metenier provided audiences with a constant stream of shocking, violent plays. Disembowelings, beheadings, and eye gougings could be seen on a nightly basis. Paula Maxa, an actress on that stage from 1917 to the late 1930s, was murdered on stage more than 10,000 times. Essentially, Grand-Guignol (the name comes from a type of puppet once used in theater spectacles as a voice of the silk workers of Lyon) provided audiences with the most horrifying and amoral shows ever seen. Ironically, the theater building was originally a chapel and retained some of the fittings. Grand-Guignol remained active until 1962, and was an immense influence on the violent films of today.
This production has one comic play, and four scenes of jealousy, vengeance, and maiming. Twice, women are thrown headfirst into fireplaces and come out dripping stage blood. A young child is suffocated by her father to avoid being captured by the enemy army; he then learns they were in no danger. Blood and guts are vomited up, nearly missing the feet of the front-row spectators. In many ways, this is scarier than seeing a horror film; certainly, there is no way to avoid connecting with these characters. The underlying thread is a profound insight into what makes people afraid. If the hired help are being ridiculed, that is because they are also feared for the physical and verbal damage they can cause. Can a blind woman stop a sexy young maid from stealing her husband? Oh yes she can! On the subject of infidelity, the 1908 play "Tics" shows how a country doctor, his playboy friend, and even the valet are unable to hide their illicit sexual conquests. There is a lot of psychology at work here. The final, brand new work sends up silly, promiscuous, devil-worshipping horror films. Perhaps Jesus and Satan are friends and don't care about humanity at all.
The cast of all five plays numbers twelve brave souls. For me, the standouts are Greg Petroff, the limping, philandering doctor, Sean Demers, the greasy playboy who is also the author of the last piece, Elizabeth Heidere, the quietly vengeful blind woman, Jeni Ahlfeld, who is scarred for life twice, and Jenny Levine, the country wife who gets her husband back "hump for hump."
Director Ariel Francouer creates some dismal and yet very familiar domestic scenes. Fight choreographer Teddy Lytle brings us action and violence in just about every scene, while Jeni Ahlfeld did the fabulous makeup which surely includes the blood across her own face. As most of the scenes take place in dark rooms, Chris Noke's lighting sets the mood well. Richard Mazda's sound design includes several melodramatic musical bursts common to the time. Last but not least, the wonderful period costumes are credited to Muppet The Dog.