By Catherine Wagley
By Channing Sargent
By L.A. Weekly critics
By Amanda Lewis
By Catherine Wagley
By Carol Cheh
By Keegan Hamilton
By Bill Raden
In 1962, Charles Nonon, the last director of the Grand Guignol Theater in Paris, remarked, “We could never compete with Buchenwald.” Before World War II, “everyone believed that what happened onstage was purely imaginary; now we know that these things — and worse — are possible.”
Even though the scene in Equivocation is set in the 1600s, the point of the graphic brutality was to shock and awe audiences into a realization of what happens when suspected terrorists are tortured, and how, despite the humanitarian posturing of our president, rendition and torture continue to be practiced by our government. This is no laughing matter.
Nonon’s theory that the fake horror paled in comparison to life’s real horrors may be partly beside the point. One could as easily speculate that audiences simply grow inured to fetishistic bloodletting on stage and screen. Classic horror flicks such as Karl Freund’s Mad Love (1935), Todd Browning’s The Devil Doll (1936), Gianni Proia’s Ecco (1963), Samuel Gullu’s Theatre of Death (1964), Joel M. Reed’s Bloodsucking Freaks (1975) and Neil Jordan’s Interview With the Vampire (1994) exist at a cultish remove from the zeitgeist of the culture, insulated within their own violence, misogyny, parody and self-parody. The slow-mo bullet punctures of director Sam Peckinpah and the grimly funny violence of Quentin Tarantino made their point by pushing boundaries of taste and protocol, after which that point diminished in significance. If they hadn’t, snuff films would now be mainstream, as snuff pageants were in ancient Rome.
Bell’s set design for Absinthe includes two golden angels hung over the theater’s ruby-red proscenium curtain. Significantly, there were two such angels hung over Oscar Metenier’s very first Grand Guignol theater in 1897 Paris. Also significantly, Metenier’s venue was the smallest theater in Paris at the time. It was, for about a year, dedicated not to horror and gore, but to realistic plays about social injustice.
The giant French puppet Guignol, after whom Metenier named his theater, was an outspoken social commentator. Metenier’s plays, depicting factory workers and prostitutes, were censored by local authorities. The Lord Chamberlain censored similar kinds of plays in London. Therein lay Guignol’s original purpose — political, social, subterranean and dissident. Very quickly, under subsequent administrations, as the social critique wore out its purpose, the populist directors turned to gore and mockery to challenge the limits of taste, and draw the hipsters. It’s reputed that booths in the back of the theaters were used for adultery. The theater was at the tip of a social revolution, or perhaps merely debauchery — a tiny, grungy theater surviving on a combination of wit, intuition and decadence.
McMahon’s experiment is, comparatively speaking, a museum piece, filled with delight but not much danger.
ABSINTHE, OPIUM AND MAGIC: 1920s SHANGHAI | Conceived by DEBBIE McMAHON, produced by the GRAND GUIGNOLERS & [VIA] CORPORA | ARTWORKS THEATRE, 6569 Santa Monica Blvd., Hollywood | Through Jan. 3 | (800) 838-3006 | brownpapertickets.com