The Grand Guignol Comes to Queens

There is plenty of ghoulish theatrical fare to go around this time of year. Even the most zealous horror buffs would be hard pressed to see the full array of Halloween-inspired productions popping up across the city. No other holiday elicits the kitsch, camp and blood-curdling screams like All Hallows Eve. The Secret Theatre throws its hat into the cauldron with Theatre du Grand-Guignol: Tales of Horror and Fear, five short plays adapted from the notoriously gory Grand Guignol Theatre of Paris. Ranging from the macabre to the farcical to the grotesque, the evening has its potholes but is never ponderous, serving up an ample platter of blood, guts and yuks. The Grand Guignol is a late 19th century Parisian theater known for its naturalistic representations of the lurid and grisly. Literally meaning “big puppet show”, the theater shocked audiences with its stark (if at times overblown) portrayal of violence, psychosis and eroticism. Anything was fair game. Dismemberments, beheadings, and scalpings were just some of the more common torments one could witness at the Grand Guignol. Playing on themes of insanity, revenge, lust, drugs, death and the fear of outsiders, the theater continued to operate, despite rabid censorship, until World War II.

Ably directed by Ariel Francoeur, Theatre du Grand-Guignol seeks to maintain a similar thematic and tonal structure as its original source. All of the themes mentioned above are reflected in the five tales. And, in the Grand Guignol tradition, the production flips from a dramatic piece to a comedic piece, from dark to light, to allow a respite from the savage by mixing it with the frivolous.

Two of the pieces on the bill, “The Final Kiss” and “Coals of Fire," are prototypical Grand Guignol. Both involve people seeking vengeance through extreme means. In “The Final Kiss”, heavily bandaged Henri (Christopher Jack Rondeau) has had his face melted with sulfuric acid. The culprit? His girlfriend, Jeanine (Jeni Ahlfeld), who returns offering Henri her apology. As you have perhaps guessed, Henri is in no mood to forgive. “Coals of Fire” is a two-character play about a wife (Elizabeth Heidere) confronting her husband’s mistress (Jeni Ahlfeld). The mistress pleads with the wife to divorce her husband so they can marry and consecrate their true love. The wife, blind and elderly, seems harmless enough, but we soon learn she is not interested in love for love’s sake.

“Tics, or Doing the Deed” is undoubtedly the most successful of the plays. Little more than a straight up sex romp, the premise is appropriately silly. A regal dinner party spins out of control as husbands and wives bed other husbands and wives only to have their lewd exploits revealed by nagging postcoital tics. To give away the individual tics would divulge the play’s payoff, which is worthwhile and well played by the ensemble. Sean Demers as Monsieur de Merlot, Amie Lytle as Madame de Merlot, Jenny Levine as Madame de Martin, and Kirsten Anderson as Venus are particularly game at milking the comedy out of this sardonic little slapstick.

The final two plays are “The Ultimate Torture” and “The Old House.” Originally written by Andre de Lorde, the most prominent of the Grand Guignol writers, “The Ultimate Torture” follows a band of survivors holed up and hidden away from an army of zombie-like creatures on the prowl. As the evil undead encroach on their lone refuge, the group is forced to make a series of desperate decisions concerning sacrifice and mercy. “The Old House," easily the most ludicrous of the five, presents two teens wandering into a haunted house only to be kidnapped by devil worshippers. As the worshippers prepare to sacrifice one of the virgin youths, The Devil (Greg Petroff) and Jesus (Timothy Lalumia) show up to banter whimsically over who should receive the virgin’s soul. It is unclear in the program how this piece is derived from the Grand Guignol and, given the content, it seems as though it was created in-house and slapped on to fill the evening. The goofy twists wear thin and the sketch-like quality of the piece cheapens an otherwise respectable slate.

By their very nature and age, works of the Grand Guignol have become parody. Culturally, with dime-a-dozen films like Saw and Hostel, and even TV shows like CSI and Dexter, our shock tolerance is much greater than it was a hundred years ago. This is why Theatre du Grand-Guignol is most effective when it is seeking laughs instead of gasps. When the material is played earnestly, rather than embracing its inherent melodrama, it comes off as heavy handed and absurdly tepid. Much in these plays is egregiously ridiculous. Contemporary productions of the Grand Guignol should consider heightening their approach to the work in order to meet the loftiness of its clichés, rather than beat it into realism and lose what’s fun and lively at its core.

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