By Catherine Wagley
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With prodigious research and a devoted ensemble, creator-director-performer Debbie McMahon is attempting through her company, the Grand Guignolers, to reinvent a form of decadent and grotesquely comic puppet theater more than a century old. Grand Guignol was born in France in the late 19th century, and thrived for several decades before expiring after World War II.
McMahon’s latest effort, Absinthe, Opium and Magic: 1920s Shanghai (co-produced with [Via] Corpora, at ArtWorks Theatre in Hollywood), takes us on an atmospheric voyage to a decade and a lawless city that were the center of human and drug trafficking, opium dens and a kind of gang warfare that makes Chicago of the ’20s look like Disney World by comparison. Perhaps Bangkok of the 1990s is the closest cousin to Shanghai, 70 years earlier.
Though set in China, the event is intended as a French affair. We’re greeted by personnel speaking in thick French accents and we’re transported to Shanghai on a French Line ship. This would at least rationalize the absence of Asian faces (one performer among 16) depicting an array of Chinese and other characters. I spotted at least a dozen Asian faces in the packed small-theater audience, which implies that the event has a certain cultural as well as historical attraction.
Pre-show entertainments include an absinthe bar in the lobby, crooners, a stilt walker in the parking lot, and a Pierrot or two in traditional baggy white silks with black buttons who cajole and tease patrons as they wander in.
Meera Rangachar is credited with the costume design, and Ann Closs-Farley with the headpieces and “advice.” What we see through the evening is a compendium of luridly colored silks and taut flapper wear that represents the intersections of the British and American empires, French colonialism and Chinese traditions that are here bruised, battered and frayed by indigenous submission to Western influences and conquests.
The performance comprises six interconnected original sketches that traverse a steady curve toward explicit gothic depictions of bloodletting, very much part of the Grand Guignol tradition. When not involving puppets, much of the action unfolds silently through mime and facial expressions that are both sneering and sardonic, with most actors in whiteface.
The performance is set to the backdrop of John Zalewski’s sound design, which features accordion sounds and tango rhythms, borrowing from the aesthetic of the silent movies of the ’20s. This is at least the third local production using film language as a substitute for text in a theatrical setting. Absinthe, along with Jonas Oppenheim’s Hamlet Shut Up! at Sacred Fools Theatre and Casey Smith’s one-man mime show, Violators Will Be Violated, presented by Circle X at Son of Semele Theatre, establish what can now be called a trend — an extension of DV8 Physical Theatre and the work of choreographer Matthew Bourne. It also follows up on the work of local company Theatre Movement Bazaar.
McMahon’s “Sing Song Girl Sings Last Song” — a playlet in three scenes — takes us to a brothel with high-end prostitutes, many of whom were sold by their impoverished families. Narrated with satirical melodrama by Dani O’Terry, the main action swirls around a new purchase, a virgin named Little Rouge (Amanda Street), and her “deflowering” by sadistic mobster Lou the Rat (Roy Starr). Before Lou bumps into Little Rouge, we’ve heard off-stage screaming and seen the arrival of the woman he’s just been with, in blood-stained silk. The emotions conjured by the sketch evoke the writings of the Marquis de Sade, aiming for the sadistic delight of watching unfettered human cruelty, crossed with and the entire oeuvres of Charles Dickens and Maxim Gorky, with their depictions of the powerful and the powerless, the wealthy and the impoverished, employed to stir moral outrage over the vulgarity of such inequities.
This combination of tones gets further amplified in Chris Bell’s sketch, “The Cabinet of Hands.” Spoiled French tourists, played with deft arrogance and spun into a lovely twist of mockery by Robin Long and Zachary Foulkes, take a rickshaw ride to edge of town, but the driver won’t enter the city. Danger, danger, danger. The streetlights are out.
A friend (Justin Waggle) leads them into an opium den run by a proprietress (Kevin Dulude in drag) who is all business and politeness. The trio gets separated, then fountains of blood suddenly appear upon a screen, representing the demise of the two men. The woman, now delirious from the effects of an opium pipe, has blurry qualms over what’s going on. Without revealing further details, let’s just say the depiction of bodily mutilation is second only to the graphic disembowelment scene in Bill Cain’s Equivocation at the Geffen. In Westwood, the audience was either turning away or watching with lurid fascination and/or disgust. In Hollywood, the crowd was laughing, emotionally situated on the precipice between horror and farce.
The difference between these two reactions brings to the fore the question of what exactly reviving Grand Guignol is for. Is this an homage to a bygone genre? Does it have anything to do with our world?
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