Theatre of Fear
nytheatre.com review by Fred Backus
October 16, 2008
Vagabonds, harlots, and ne'er-do-wells rejoice: the Grand Guignol has returned—or at least homage to it has emerged in Long Island City courtesy of The Secret Theatre's Queens Players. Assembling together four short tales of horror—two old and two new—Theatre of Fear is a fun evening at times, even if some of its offerings are only partially successful in bringing us both chills and thrills.
The original Grand Guignol—which produced more than a thousand works of theatre from the end of the 19th through the first half of the 20th century—was infamous for its programs of violent one-acts that dealt with gothic and psychological horror. The template can be seen in Theatre of Fear's opening story, an original Grand Guignol play by Andre De Lorde called The System which was adapted from a short story of Edgar Allen Poe at the beginning of the 20th century. Gruesome violence and a satisfying (if easily anticipated) plot twist are hallmarks here, but so is an eerie apprehension of some of our deep seated social and cultural terrors. The "inmates taking over the asylum" gambit may be hackneyed today, but the Poe story was apparently its first iteration, and the Guignol adaptation also points at class uprising, the breakdown of gender roles, and a preoccupation with mental disorders that must have been tugging at the subconscious of the turn-of-the-century audiences the piece was written for.
The genre, therefore, is ripe with opportunities to do some interesting things, and I would liked to have seen the two original pieces—penned by The Secret Theatre's artistic director Richard Mazda—explore these possibilities in more creative ways. The first of Mazda's pair, The Good Death, certainly tackles a live-wire topic of today, euthanasia, but it does so with little insight and surprisingly few horror elements involved. Mazda's other original piece, Double Crossed, involves a dominatrix who has discovered her husband and maid are having and affair and the revenge she enacts upon them, which is disappointingly unimaginative given it is what the entire piece revolves around. But what is most noticeably absent from these two pieces is anything that could remotely be considered a surprise. The great examples of short tales such as these, from Edgar Allen Poe to Rod Serling, usually involve some sort of ironic twist, reversal of fate, unexpected reveal, or, at the very least, an unimagined gruesome ending. With both The Good Death and Double Crossed, there is no such hinge.
The evening isn't helped by some rather static directorial choices and some uneven performances—particularly in the first half of the program. Things do pick up in the second half, however. Double Crossed has a little more dynamic energy than the first two pieces, and Shelleen Kostabi in particular does a nice job as the formidable Madame X. Ultimately, though, the evening belongs to the closer: Daniel Wolfe and his triumphant narration of the classic Edgar Allen Poe short story, The Tell Tale Heart. Mazda directs here, and does a fine job, augmenting it with subtle but effective staging, lighting, and sound. Mostly, however, he lets Wolfe do his thing, which he does with gusto and passion, wandering into the audience and working the crowd before re-enacting the narrator's inevitable unraveling in an evocative and lively retelling.
It's a big finish to a somewhat uneven evening, and it hints at the potential that might be realized in the future for this Long Island City theater company. Passion and guts can lead the way to great things, and Theatre of Fear shows elements of both, indicating that the best work is yet to come from The Secret Theatre.